By Joe Dizney
I could see my breath this morning as I walked the dog. Fall is on the way and winter will be close behind and although the farmer’s market is still featuring the late bounty of summer, the red of tomatoes will soon give way to the orange of pumpkins and sweet fresh corn will be a thing of the past.
On these cool nights and chilly mornings I’m torn between a desire for warm, creamy comfort foods and the last of the sweet, fleeting freshness I’ve become accustomed to over the last few months.
A trip to the local farm store for eggs reminded me of a tasty and very traditional Hudson Valley specialty: sapahn.
Samp. Suppaen. Sapean. Suppan. Suppawn. These are just a few lexical variations I’ve come across. No wonder we’re oblivious to its charms.
You might know it as mush — or grits in the deep South or armottes or polente in France. Anyone for Transylvanian puliszka, or putu from the African Bantu?
The freshly ground corn meal from Clinton Corners’ Wild Hives Farm that prompted this revelry was simply labeled polenta, surely in deference to the current generation of foodies (or whatever they — we? — are called) in the early 21st century.
A bit of culinary archeology: Once again, we have Native Americans to thank for a culinary staple truly gone global. In the hands and kettles of 17th-century Dutch settlers, this “Indian wheat,” soaked and boiled in water, was served in a communal dish. As the hot mush cooled and solidified, small divots (as many as there were diners) were excavated in the surface of the mush.
As the diners took to table, the divots in this mush sapahn were filled with milk, and each hungry diner excavated the “bank” of his “White Lake” (or “Milky Pond”) with a spoon, hopefully in the spirit of respectful brotherhood.
And just as corn and cornmeal was adapted throughout the geographic New World, spawning grits, scrapple and the like, it also oozed back to the Old World in what is referred to as the Columbian Exchange creating the culinary mutations and progeny of Europe and the African continent mentioned above.
But by the early 20th century our New England — and more specifically Hudson Valley variant — was so little known we had lost the words to call it.
It took the culinary renaissance of the ’60s and ’70s and the glorification of Mediterranean eating to dignify it again as polenta, an Italian foodstuff worth exploring, and get it on to upscale restaurant plates.
Beyond that it took Hudson Valley food and market pioneers such as chef Waldy Malouf (currently senior director of food and beverage operations at the Culinary Institute of America) to bring it all back home. Despite being a southerner by birth, his 1995 The Hudson River Valley Cookbook did much to focus the culinary spotlight on the HRV, and in it he solidly reclaims the mush known as suppawn as the valley’s own.
His master recipe calls for chicken stock, which would certainly make for a richer tasting mush, and a bit of cheese, both of which are nice but not really necessary. And while he amps the fabulosity quotient of this simple preparation up big time with a Lobster Gratin with Suppawn, it’s with the addition of more simple ingredients that sapahn (what-ever!) shines as a small, good thing.
And none of these additions seem more “right” right now than the last of the summer sweet corn. A combination of creamy, warm cornmeal combined with fresh sweet kernels off the cob is the very essence of corn. Served “soft” straight from the pot, or allowed to set in a pan and cut into squares or triangles and re-heated — pan-fried in butter or oil (or bacon fat!), or browned in the oven — this late summer sapahn serves as the perfect delivery device for whatever temporal or seasonal culinary delicacy you might desire.
The version shown in the photo is topped with a simple vegetarian ragù of summer tomatoes and dried porcini, topped with slivers of Sprout Creek Farm’s “Bogart” aged cow’s milk cheese. Or try it simply covered in sautéed greens. Wait for later in the season and serve it with braised short ribs. Have it for breakfast with a fried or poached egg, or topped with butter and a splash of maple syrup. For dessert, top with roasted figs and Nettle Meadow’s Maple Chevre.
It’s very forgiving and always appreciated, but what shall we call it …?
Adapted from The Hudson River Valley Cookbook (by Waldy Malouf with Molly Finn, 1998, Harvard Common Press, paperback). Cook time: 20 minutes; 4-6 servings
1 cup coarse ground cornmeal (locally sourced: Wild Hives Farm’s polenta)
3 cups water (or chicken or vegetable stock if you’re feeling expansive)
1 cup cream
1 tablespoon raw organic sugar
1 teaspoon salt
2-3 tablespoons butter
½-to-1 cup raw corn kernels
- Heat the water or stock and cream in a 2-quart saucepan over medium heat until just steaming. Add the salt, sugar and butter and stir to incorporate.
- Begin adding the cornmeal in a thin stream, whisking as you add it so that it does not clump. Stir for a minute or so to ensure that it is completely mixed in.
- Cook the mixture (for a total of 20 minutes) whisking or stirring occasionally. It should begin to thicken by the 10-minute mark or so, bubbling slowly. It is done when it just barely stays off the sides of the saucepan.
- About 2 minutes before finishing, add the fresh corn and stir to incorporate evenly.
Serving soft: Serve immediately if desired soft, topped with the sweet or savory topping of your choice (see above).
Pan-fried or baked: Or pour the sapahn immediately into a lightly greased 8-inch baking pan, cover with plastic wrap and let cool in the refrigerator. When completely cooled, turn the sapahn out onto a cutting board and cut into squares or triangles. Fry lightly on the stovetop in a lightly greased pan or brown in the oven for 25 to 30 minutes at 350 degrees, lightly brushed with butter or oil on a baking sheet.
Photo by J. Dizney