I love polenta. Actually, judging by the number of cornbread recipes in this blog, you probably wouldn’t be surprised to find out I love most dishes made out of corn. A simple corn mush, polenta used to be a peasant food before North American restaurants started selling it as a gourmet food. It must be in my genes because before there was ever a cornmeal polenta in Italy, Brazilians were making angú, a very similar dish that has its origins in the slave trade. The word angu comes from agun, a West African word meaning a simple mush made with a local root plant cooked with no seasoning. With the arrival of corn, brought by the Portuguese, agun was also made with corn. Brought to Brazil by African slaves, it became a local specialty. In my dad’s region, the local variation is known as angu mineiro, and it is simply made with cornmeal and water and no salt, oil, or any seasoning.
An anonymous chronicler in 1717 described clearly the influence of corn in the region where my dad and my mom’s dad are from:
The style of cooking of Minas Gerais is unveiled, mainly, in the corn complex. From green corn, cooked, roasted or made into mush or into flour, corn is present in all meals, overpowering the native manioc. The Mineiro never used bread of “farinha de pau” (manioc flour), the common bread during the first centuries of colonization, as the basic food.
My mom says that the first word that came out of my mouth was angu. I simply loved it. The angu mineiro is cooked to a very firm consistency and poured in a deep plate and left to cool for a few minutes, until it’s firm enough to slice. Whenever we would go visit my grandmother in Minas, I’d live on angu and black beans with a nice thick sauce. A black bean stew served with angu and shredded kale is still the ultimate comfort food for me.
Unfortunately, angu is perhaps too plain to be interesting to those not raised on it. I find it balances the strong tastes of the heavy stews the Mineiros love. Alas, Alan is not so interested so I seldom make it around here. But a great substitute is polenta. So yesterday I took advantage of the cold and rainy evening and made a polenta casserole. First I stir fried a couple of cups of oyster mushrooms and one portobello mushrooms sprinkled with some oregano. Once cooked, I removed them from the pan and set aside. I then browned one onion and three garlic cloves and cooked in it one red pepper, one small eggplant, and half a zucchini, well seasoned with oregano, salt & pepper. To make it more “saucy” I added one cup of tomato sauce to the cooked vegetables and let it simmer until all the flavours were combined. I folded in the mushrooms, a handful of chopped fresh parsley and set aside. All of that was done in a 10″ cast iron pan.
In a separate pot I brought two cups of milk and two and a half cups of vegetable stock (you can omit the milk and replace it with stock), 2 tbsp butter, salt & pepper to boil. Once simmering, I added 1 1/2 cup of cornmeal (I used the coarse kind) slowly while stirring continuously with a whisk. I lowered the heat and and cooked until it started peeling off the sides of the pan, about 10 mins, stirring continuously. Once ready, I poured the polenta on top of the vegetable stew, sprinkled some gruyere and fresh mozarella cheese on top and baked in the oven for half an hour at 350 F. This is the result:
It was soooooo good.