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December 28, 2010. So I was stirring what I think is the world’s best polenta when I found myself completely transfixed by the visual effect of the swirling grains of corn. OK, it wasn’t the light show at the Fillmore, but it was extremely cool and prompted me to take a quick break to turn on some Grateful Dead. The visual was almost as cool as the great aroma wafting up from the pot. The polenta pot.

I’ll get to the polenta preparation in a couple of paragraphs. The first thing you should know about is the “Every Thing Is Everything” part. You make this for the experience as much as you do it for the food and flavor. You stir for an hour. Sixty minutes of vertical cuddling and/or dancing opportunity. A great winter dish. Great winter warm-up.

In the event you and polenta are new to each other: it’s cornmeal. Like grits. It’s mellow, delicious, comforting. Remarkably nutritious, cheap and versatile. Great for breakfasts, lunches, dinners and desserts built around this whole grain cornmeal preparation. Always make extra. It keeps well in the fridge for a few days, and there’s always something to do with it. Like my New Year’s Morning polenta & egg pizza. Tune in Saturday. You may need it.

A few ingredients
This version may be slow, but it’s easy. Other than a cup of polenta, all you need is water (4 cups), salt (1 tsp), pepper (1/2 tsp, optional) and unsalted butter (2 tbsp). A great option: add three tablespoons of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. These ingredients will make four to six servings as a first or side course.

Note: This recipe works as described when you use Anson Mills Rustic Coarse Polenta Integrale. You won’t get the culinary result and the visual effect with any other polenta/cornmeal I know. So today’s Way of the Day is also your introduction to a great resource for “new crop” grains: grains milled and cooked within four months of harvest (freezing does extend shelf life).

The cooking instructions come straight from the miller. They’re very particular about how you treat their grains, and their instructions always work:

Combine and stir (with a wooden spoon) 4 cups of spring water with 1 cup of polenta. Do it in a heavy 2.5-quart saucepan, then put the pan on a stove burner set to medium high and stir constantly for 5 – 8 minutes, until the mixture begins to simmer and the finer corn particles thicken and hold the larger ones in suspension. When this happens, reduce the heat to low and continue to cook for about an hour, stirring frequently – every minute or so. About 15 minutes in, you begin to get the psychedelic swirl.

Why does this polenta look so cool and taste so good? Apparently, Anson Mills is growing and milling a really unusual corn varietal. Their description: “Milled from an Italian heirloom red trentino flint [corn] that was, until recently, nearly extinct even in Italy, [it] shows bright flecks of crimson bran and features pronounced mineral components, with a lingering sweetness on the palate.”

And they’re not kidding. It’s incredibly creamy, even before you add the little bit of butter at the end. It’s not like you can’t get deliriously creamy polenta with other cornmeals and recipes – but you’ll be adding a cup of cream to the mix. Here, you just add water.

I guess it’s those “flecks of crimson bran” that produce the red swirls through the bright yellow field of corn that are the source of my psychedelic experience of this great polenta.

Every Thing Is Everything
You’ll burn about 240 calories by standing and stirring occasionally for an hour; more if you’re dancing and singing. One of the four delicious servings you get from this recipe: 205 calories (less if you skip the butter). Net loss: 35 calories.

Serve it with heirloom beans and get high quality protein. The beans have all but one of the essential amino acids, methionine — the one amino acid that corn has lots of.

You digest this low glycemic index whole grain very slowly, so it helps you maintain stable glucose levels.

Fun while stirring. A great excuse to spend an hour very, very close to the significant other you stir with. Try the Dead’s American Beauty for your soundtrack. Worked for me.

It’s Always Something
If you really just want this fabulous polenta without the stirring, there is a way. The folks at Anson Mills permit no shortcuts in this or any other preparation, but they do believe you get perfect results by putting the polenta and water in a Slow Cooker for 90 minutes and walking away. They’re right.

I tried it in my Cuisinart 4-Quart Slow Cooker — I did nothing and it turned out perfectly. Do I recommend this? Yes, but only if you dance for at least 60 of the 90 minutes your Slow Cooker is doing the work for you.

Cost Comparison
My Slow Cooker’s 215-Watt heating element (set to high) used about .32 kilowatt-hours in 90 minutes; at the national average of 12 cents/kWh, my cooking cost was about 4 cents. When I use a burner (set to low) on my gas stove for an hour, I use about 2000 BTU, the equivalent of .57 kWh; the cost is about 1 cent. Environmental cost? The difference is tiny.

Wanna reduce your carbon footprint in the kitchen? Eat less meat – and when you eat meat, get it from a local, small-scale organic producer. Producing a pound of beef at an industrial feedlot produces 100 times more greenhouse gas than growing vegetables. (“How Meat Contributes to Global Warming“, Scientific American)

If you’re wondering about the carbon footprint of your grains, buying from Anson Mills keeps it tiny. Yes, they practice organic, sustainable farming. Now consider transportation. Their stuff makes one trip: from them to you. Even if you walk to and from a local store, whatever you buy there has gone from a farm to a mill to a distribution center and, in the best case, from there to your store.

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