Fancy Dog Food or What We Now Call Polenta

I'm amused when I read gourmet cooking magazines and read the menu in some restaurants and see polenta. If you've don't know about polenta, the simple definition is a thick, cornmeal mush. What does that have to do with dog food? Well, growing up as a poor kid on a farm with numerous dogs, my Mom often made food for the dogs. She'd start with some leftover grease in a big cast iron skillet, pour in milk and when it was hot she'd start adding cornmeal. Milk was cheap most of the year since we had a milk cow. We grew corn, shelled and ground it by hand. So corn was inexpensive too. As it cooked, the cornmeal mush thickened and table scraps were add. My dogs knew the meaning of the words, "Mom cooked." They sometimes turned their noses up at commercial dog food.

Years later, I moved to the Pacific Northwest and encountered polenta in restaurants. It looked familiar and made me chuckle. Here was a basic simple food being served in restaurants accompanying expensive entrees. It looked familiar. A bit more jazzed up that what Mom used to cook but basically the same thing.

Polenta is simple. It consists of water, cornmeal, maybe some salt and other flavorings. Spice it up or dress it down. It's simply boiled, allowed to set up and then baked or fried.


3 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup cornmeal

Spray a loaf pan with nonstick cooking spray.

Bring 3 cups water and the salt to a boil. Reduce the heat and gradually add the cornmeal. Pour in a thin, slow stream while whisking constantly so that lumps don't form. Cook, stirring frequently, until thickened, 5-10 minutes. If you want to spice it up, stir in a 1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes.

Spread the polenta in the prepared loaf pan and smooth the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm, at least 30 minutes.

Remove polenta from the loaf pan and slice in 1/2 inch slices. Place slices on the baking sheet. At this point you can add as many calories as you'd like by buttering the polenta, or topping with cheese, or leave it plain. Bake uncovered at 350 F for 20 minutes.

Preheat oven to 350 F. Lightly spray a baking sheet with nonstick cooking spray. Bake until polenta develops a nice color.

Another cornmeal mush type dish comes to us from Africa. It is called Ugali. Ugali is made with a white maize flour. Although many recipes suggest that grits or yellow cornmeal may be substituted. Ugali can vary in consistency from a soupy porridge to a thicker dough. Since ugali is traditionally eaten by rolling it into a bite-size ball, creating an indention and using it to scoop up a stew or curry.


4 cups water
1 tsp salt
2 cups white maize flour

Over high heat, bring water and salt to a boil. Add the flour slowly, 1 tablespoon at a time, while stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps. Continue until all the flour is used.

Reduce heat to medium-low and cook until mixture reduces and thickens, and pulls away from the sides of the pot, about 5-6 minutes.

Let sit for about 5 minutes, then remove from heat. Let sit another minute, then serve.

Makes 4 servings.

There used to be tales of elderly people buying and eating canned cat and dog food because it was what they could afford. Those canned foods have gotten expensive. I think we can eat more nutritiously without resorting to canned pet foods. Just stir up a batch of polenta or ugali. I wonder now if the family pets knew what wonderful things my mother was cooking up for them. I think they did since they often rejected the store bought dog food.


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