Cornmeal is a staple ingredient in so many cuisines that it just about spans the globe, from East Asia’s breadlike Tie Bing to the American South’s ubiquitous grits. For thousands of years, creative cooks have ground corn, turned it into meal, fried it or boiled it—and then feasted on the deliciously satisfying results. Cornmeal-based dishes offer consistent, cost-effective servings that remind customers of real home cooking, wherever “home” may be.
If you’d like to stretch your creativity by using cornmeal as your canvas, consider these two options from South America and Italy.
Christina Nguyen is the chef and co-owner of Minneapolis-based Hola Arepa, a local eatery that serves up Latin food and craft cocktails. As the name suggests, the restaurant’s mainstay is the crispy griddled corn cake that’s a specialty of Venezuelan and Colombian cuisine. Made with the precooked cornmeal called masarepa, arepas have a light and fluffy texture. Once they’re split open, they become a handheld sandwich which can be filled with any number of ingredients. “In Latin America, they’re eaten for breakfast with butter and jam or later in the day with ham and cheese,” Nguyen says. At Hola Arepa, more extravagantly packed versions feature braised meats, black beans and sweet potatoes. “It all tastes better with our Hola Sauce, which is tangy and herbaceous.”
“Arepas are great street food,” says Nguyen, who worked the Hola Arepa concept as a food truck before moving to a brick and mortar location. “They need to be consumed right away, because they’re most delicious when they’re hot and fresh.”
The ultimate in Italian comfort food, polenta is a boiled cornmeal that not only tastes great when served right away as a thick porridge, but can be cooled and set and then shaped and fried, grilled or baked. With such a rich and creamy texture as the backdrop, polenta allows for chef-driven creativity in saucing and topping presentations. It can be used as a base for sauces, stews and thick soups; can be topped with meat, vegetables and marinara sauce; or can even be used as a “crust” for pizza toppings. You can even use it as a breakfast special, serving it with nuts, fruit and milk topping.
Marzetti sauces make a great topping option for cornmeal-focused specials. Experiment with our wide variety of sauces such as Roasted Garlic Parmesan.
Feature on Hola Arepa in Bon Appetit
Serious Eats’ Daniel Gritzer discusses the “real rules” for making polenta
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