Eat Drink Local Profile #33: Whole Grains

Cornmeal from Wild Hive Farm in Clinton Corners, NY. Photo from our friends in the food section of the Poughkeepsie Journal, who are luckily much closer to Clinton Corners than we are.

The Ingredient:

Whole Grains. It’s full-on harvest season, the time of year when locavores eat themselves sick on produce of every size, shape and stripe. Last-chance peaches and tomatoes take their final bow even as autumn bounty rushes the stage with beautiful buttercup squash, killer cranberry beans, peak-season pears and grapes that taste like Hubba Bubba. Animals too have grown fat on summer pasture and are ripe for their picking, and lines are long at the pork and poultry stands.

But even those eaters who regard their weight and net worth as less important than their daily food miles can be altogether unfamiliar with a dusty ingredient that’s gaining a foothold at local farms and a following at local markets: whole grains, our second of the Eat Drink Local week 11 Ingredients of the Day. As you know if you read Indrani Sen’s recent Breadwinners feature on the mini grain renaissance, an industry that was long thought dead is making a small but surprising comeback.

Why They’re Important:

Grain is central to our diets but it’s been absent from our foodshed for over a hundred years. Back in the 18th century, our state grew all its own wheat—until cheap grain arrived from the Midwest and farmers here stopped growing it. Today some farmers and advocates are working to resurrect an Empire State grain economy, but it’s not easy. Mills have to be built, growing methods learned. And even customers who seek out heirloom produce and heritage-breed meats have to be persuaded to bake with funny-looking flours (small-batch production is quirky) or experiment with unfamiliar sides (triticale berries, anyone?).

But once you’ve gotten used to cooking and eating local grains, those variations are precisely what make them worth the trouble. Yes, industrial flour’s consistency allows home bakers to follow recipes as written rather than judge, say, how much water to add. But locally grown heirloom grains are well worth the learning curve—as different from that supermarket powder as a juicy market Winesap is from a cottony Red Delicious.

It feels paradoxical to eat a food to save it, but as with all domesticated species, the best way to support grains is to increase demand. That is, to pay farmers for growing it.

Why We Love Them:

Indrani’s story inspired me to eat more local grain—but so did a short piece in the current Edible Brooklyn about an artist’s efforts to commemorate the foods that Native Americans once grew here. Just outside the Carroll Street F stop, Christina Kelly grew the agricultural trinity that sustained life here for centuries: corn, beans and squash. The corn in question was no supersweet ear, the kind I’ve eaten every night for the last eight weeks with plenty of butter and salt, but rather an ancient variety of flour corn. I’m rooting for the Little Red Hens upstate who are sowing wheat, but for the purposes of today’s ingredient, I decided to focus on grain native to our shores: cornmeal.

It might not be on your table three times a day but it’s awfully easy to eat, any time of day. My husband has happy memories of cornmeal waffles and I intended to make polenta for breakfast but this weekend (that’s grits to you Southerners) I served the sunny starch for supper. Polenta is an obvious starting point, but rather than commit to ceaseless stovetop stirring, I followed Paula Wolfert’s simple oven method from Slow Mediterranean Kitchen: in a casserole combine 1 cup cornmeal, 4 cups water, a teaspoon of salt and a tablespoon of olive oil, and bake at 350 for 90 minutes, stirring 10 minutes before the timer dings. What a simple and delicious base for cranberry beans. Or roasted poblanos. Or pork sausages. Or just about anything else you’d ever want for any meal of the day.

Also a snap and perhaps even more delicious are cornmeal drop biscuits, which I prefer to the kind you have to roll out, because I’m lazy. (Plus I love any recipe that co-stars buttermilk.)

I’m usually more seduced by savory tastes than sweets, but two cornmeal-kissed confections stole my heart. True to their namesake, cornmeal cookies are sensible and straightforward rather than showy, essentially a sugar cookie with corny grit, as honest and American as anything Laura Ingalls Wilder may have dunked in her tin cup. And I think so long as I live, every crisp I make, every season of the year, will forsake that oaty cloak for David Lebovitz’s cornmeal crisp topping. Yes, I hereby vow crisp-topping monogamy.

At the farmers market Saturday I bought sweet corn, sad those ears would surely be my last of the year. But now I know cornmeal is in season every day of the year.

Where to Find Them:

I love the local stoneground polenta and cornmeal I bought at Wild Hive Farm in the Hudson Valley; owner Don Lewis also sells at the Union Square Greenmarket on Fridays. Cayuga Pure Organics up in the Finger Lakes also sells their gorgeous cornmeal at city farmers markets.
But you needn’t cook it yourself, especially today; Our partner restaurants are celebrating local grains on their menus, and I wish I could eat at each one. Braeburn is serving roasted chicken with wheat berries and roasted onions. DB Bistro Moderne is accompanying their Wednesday duck dish with braised kale and creamy polenta (where do I sign?). Dizzy’s will serve a delectable starter of fried clams dusted with Wild Hive cornmeal with red pepper remoulade. And at Savoy, Peter Hoffman will crown Cayuga polenta with stewed roma tomatoes.

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