Thursday, April 10, 2008

Cruise Ship Cuisine: Poi and Polenta

4/9/08 Cook’s Corner
Cruise ship fare: Poi and Polenta
Betty Kaiser

Sailing along on a Hawaiian cruise ship last month, I expected to see ‘Poi,’ a staple of the traditional Hawaiian diet on the menu. Made from pounding cooked Taro roots, it was used by the early Hawaiians for both food and medicinal purposes. Once you taste its sour, fermented purple texture, you understand the medicinal part. And while it’s a good source of nutrients, you might say that eating it is a highly acquired taste!

On the other hand, I never expected to see the humble cornmeal mush featured on a Hawaiian menu. Of course, on a cruise ship, it isn’t called ‘mush.’ That would be way too plebian. Instead, over the last decade, mush has morphed into a gourmet item. It is now called ‘polenta’ and served in many fancy forms.

Technically (if I understand it correctly) the term polenta is an Italian word for coarse yellow corn meal mush. And since ‘polenta’ certainly sounds better than ‘mush,’ I can understand why restaurateurs are using it. Whatever the semantics, the ingredients are the same: yellow or white cornmeal is cooked into a thick porridge with a liquid of water and milk (breakfast cereal); chicken or beef broth (dinner); or just plain water with a dollop of butter anytime.

The result is a smooth textured, bland product and an interesting change from rice, potatoes or pasta. Some eat mush as a hot cereal such as cream of wheat or oatmeal. To change the cornmeal taste, a dollop of yogurt and fruit preserves can be stirred into the porridge, making a sweet and creamy breakfast dish.

I grew up eating fried corn meal mush for breakfast. Prepared the night before, it was smoothed into a rectangular baking pan and refrigerated. The next morning, mother would slice and fry it until crispy. We kids would smother the slices in butter and drizzle with maple syrup. Served alone or with bacon and eggs, we always looked forward to our mushy weekend treat.

The following recipes will stretch your creative thinking juices. If you’re planning on having a luau this summer, try the Taro Rolls now, so you can order the poi (available on the Internet) and fine-tune the recipe. Sorry, I have eaten them but I haven’t made them! An alternative would be to just add purple food coloring to your favorite yeast rolls!

Polenta, also known as corn meal mush, is really very simple and quite versatile. Basic recipes can be found on most packages of white or yellow cornmeal. I am offering the best recipe of all time from Mary Randolph’s “The Virginia House Wife” cookbook written back in 1824. The original form gives no measurements and her recipe is a narrative, so I am taking the liberty of putting it into a more readable format.

Taro (Poi) Rolls
(Served at Polynesian Cultural Center Alii Luau)

1 1/3 cups warm water (90-degrees)
1 egg
1 cup Poi
½ cup butter, softened
1 teaspoon purple food coloring
1 cup sugar
2 pounds flour
1/ 4 teaspoon salt
2 ½ teaspoons yeast

Line a baking sheet with aluminum foil; set aside.

Using an electric mixer with a stand: Combine egg, butter, food coloring, poi and water in the mixing bowl. Add yeast to warm water, dissolve; add to dry ingredients. Mix together with a dough hook at medium speed until texture is smooth.

Remove from mixing bowl and place on floured tabletop; knead lightly until elastic. Remove 3 ounces dough and roll into ball size; place on backing sheet. Continue rolling taro balls until dough is gone. Cover and set aside in a warm place to rise for 15-20 minutes.

Bake at 225 degrees for 20 minutes. Yield: 1 ½ dozen rolls

Mary Randolph’s Corn Meal Cheese Casserole
“The Virginia Housewife” 1824

Corn Meal (approx. 1 cup)
1 quart water
Cold water (enough to moisten corn meal)
1 teaspoon salt
1 large spoonful butter

In a pan, put a large spoonful of butter in a quart of water and bring to a boil. Wet your corn meal with cold water in a bowl; add some salt and make it quite smooth. Then put it in the hot buttered water and let it boil, stir continually till done.

As soon as you can handle it, make it into a ball and let it stand till quite cold (put in the refrigerator). Cut mush in thin slices, lay them in the bottom of a deep dish so as to cover it; put slices of cheese on it and on that a few bits of butter; then another layer of mush, cheese and butter until the dish is full. Put on the top thin slices of cheese. Put the dish in a quick oven; 20-30 minutes will bake it.

Keep it simple and keep it seasonal! 
Betty Kaiser’s Cook’s Corner is dedicated to sharing a variety of recipes
that are delicious, family oriented and easy to prepare.

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