Basics: Mush

Call it polenta, ugali, kanahena/ganohenv, mămăligă, or just plain mush (maybe the least attractive term in any language I have seen!)–it’s good eating. And very versatile.

You can buy the stuff in chubs, though I can’t imagine it tastes too great. But it’s also easy to make. (You can even form it into chubs yourself, if you like the round slices–good cooking instructions there, BTW!)

I didn’t think I liked mush very much when I was a kid, because my mom always turned out soft, kind of runny stuff to eat with milk and honey/maple syrup/sorghum as a breakfast dish.  (She did the same with grits, and I liked them a lot better too after her aunt served me thicker grits with crumbled bacon on top!) But, you can make it thick, thin, sweet, or savory. These days I usually prefer a sliceably thick version to serve under stews, or with sour cream and cheese Eastern European styley.

A pie pan of mush cooling and getting a fluffier texture

The Amazing Technicolor Corn Mush, cooling and getting a fluffier texture in an oiled pie pan

How do you make it?

Start with a good rather coarse cornmeal. All the bags labelled polenta in the store are is coarse cornmeal. Actually, I use mush as a taste and texture check for new meal; if it makes a good mush, it will make tasty breads and not break your teeth when used as breading. 🙂 I prefer white cornmeal just for aesthetic reasons–the pearliness in mush is absolutely lovely!–but am having to buy yellow these days.

Were I anywhere in the U.S. now, I would probably order in some Big Spring Mill stuff (white), from a small mill in Elliston, Virginia–it’s that good. (Even better, when my dad asked them about it a few years ago, they were very definite about using corn-only machinery.) I don’t know of any really good quality national brands, unfortunately. These days, I’m mostly using Dunn’s River Coarse Cornmeal (Polenta), which is easy to find in the UK and not bad tasting at all.

Get a heavy pan bigger with at least half again the capacity of the amount of water you want to use (otherwise it’s really easy to glop all over the place while you’re stirring!), and a sturdy wooden spoon which will get right into the edges of your pan.

Measure out your cornmeal and your water. This is one of the few ratios I do consistently measure in the kitchen (along with other grains). For a thinner consistency, use 4 parts water per part of cornmeal by volume. For one that will set up firmly so you can slice it, use 3 parts. For something that will substitute for bread, use 2 parts. (I have been half-afraid to try that, with the potential for sticking and burning, but if I do, I’ll report back!) You can use other liquids to cook it, but since this is a basic recipe, I’ll stick to water.

Note: For a smoother result, you can mix part of your cold water together with your cornmeal, and let it sit while the rest of your water comes up to a boil. For example, if you’re using 4 cups of water and 1 cup of cornmeal, put 3 cups of water on to boil and mix the other cup of water with the meal. Use a table knife to scrape it into the boiling pot, and watch out for splashes! (This is how my mom did it.) But, I am usually looking for fluffier, coarser-grained results, so don’t like to presoak the meal.

Add approximately a teaspoon of salt per quart/litre of water, and bring it to a boil. Gradually pour in the meal, stirring constantly to keep it from lumping together. Continue stirring until it’s thickened up, within a couple of minutes. After that, you only need to stir it every couple of minutes. Make sure to get the spoon into the corners of the pot, and make sure you’re scraping the bottom well when you stir. (It will leave a bit of a crust anyway, but soaking will make it lift up in one piece.)

Be careful stirring your mush, because if a glob gets on you, it will stick and burn like crazy. There is even an old Iroquoian story in which Sky Woman’s horrible husband abuses her by throwing hot mush on her skin. Don’t do that to yourself!

The cooking time depends on a lot of factors–elevation, water hardness, etc. The best I can say is, watch for the grains to go totally translucent in the middle, and periodically (and carefully) taste bits off the edge of the spoon. When it’s soft and not gritty at all, it’s done. That usually takes about 10 minutes here, and up to 30 back home.

When it’s finished, you can either spoon it out onto the serving dish to sit for a few minutes before eating, or you can put it into a greased pan to set up so you can cut it into neat pieces. It will keep in the fridge for about a week, so I usually make a bigger batch than I think I’ll need for that meal.


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