By Cassidee Dabney
In culinary school, I learned about polenta. I remember telling my dad about it and he said, “Oh, that’s just cornmeal mush.” He used to make cornmeal mush fried up and coated in a pepper jam. For the Symposium crowd, I thought it’d be fun to garnish the dish with hazelnut and mint. Peppers and dill are companion plants—they grow next to each other in our garden at Blackberry Farm. They’re actually just a few feet from the Hickory King corn and hazelnut orchard. I tend to incorporate flavors common to some Indian cuisines in my recipes, ever since my internship at an Indian restaurant in Germany. I wanted this recipe to be creamy and satisfying, without getting so heavy that people can’t button their pants.
Editor’s note: This is a graduate-level project for the home cook, and the recipe yields enough for a crowd. Dabney recommends starting the night before for perfect cornmeal mush. You may substitute store-bought pepper jelly for the pickled pepper jam. If you forgot to put up your own pickled ramps last spring (oh, shoot!), you can purchase a jar from a number of sources, such as Blackberry Farm or Farmer’s Daughter.
Pickled Pepper Jam
1 cup water
1 cup sugar
1 cup white wine vinegar
1 pint sliced lunch box pepper rings
1 teaspoon Aleppo pepper
¼ cup pickled ramp liquid
Add everything except ramp liquid into to a non-reactive pan. Reduce to a thin, light amber syrup (think the same consistency as simple syrup). Stir in pickled ramp liquid. Set aside and let cool.
1 cup yogurt
1 cup crème fraiche
½ cup gently packed, picked dill
3 whole pickled ramps
Salt to taste
Purée the dill, yogurt, and ramps in a blender or food processor for about one minute. The yogurt will be thin and green.
Add the crème fraiche and blend until just incorporated. This will thicken the mixture, but do not over mix. Season with salt to taste. Refrigerate for at least two hours.
2 cups corn polenta (Dabney recommends Hickory King)
3 cups vegetable stock
3 cups milk
3 tablespoons butter
2 teaspoon salt
Chopped fresh mint leaves, chopped hazelnuts, pickled ramps, and corn nuts for garnishing
Line an 11×17″ baking dish or pan with oiled parchment paper.
In a saucepan, bring the vegetable stock, butter, milk, and salt to a boil. Add the polenta slowly and whisk constantly to avoid lumps. Cook over medium heat until the polenta becomes tender about 20 minutes. Pour the cornmeal mush onto the prepared baking pan and spread evenly. The mush will be about one to one-and-a-half inches high. Cover with plastic wrap to prevent a crust from forming. Refrigerate overnight. The next day, remove plastic wrap and cut sheet of polenta into desired cube size.
In a pot or home fryer, heat vegetable oil to 350 degrees. Working in batches, fry the cubed mush for about one minute or until golden brown and crispy. Toss fried mush cubes with your desired amount of chopped mint, chopped hazelnuts, sliced pickled ramps, and corn nuts. Toss everything with pepper jelly to coat lightly.
Serve with immediately with the dill yogurt on the side or plated beneath the cornmeal.
Originally a physical anthropology major at the University of Arkansas, Cassidee Dabney graduated from the New England Culinary Institute. She took the position of sous chef at Blackberry Farm in 2010 and was appointed executive chef in 2015.