While being the main ingredient in the preparation of polenta, cornmeal is also widely used in the preparation of pastas, timbales, desserts, Mexican tortillas, crepes, and in many other food products. Corn – scientific name, Zea mays – is an annual herbaceous plant and one of the world's most important grains, as it is widely cultivated in both temperate and tropical regions.
The history of corn is very long, and uncertain. According to Charles Darwin, it originates from South America, but some subsequent archaeological discoveries in Egypt's pyramids – corn seeds were found inside a sarcophagus – refute this theory, establishing the African origin of the plant.
Nonetheless, in the 1960s and 70s, the scholar Richard MacNeish located the cradle of maize cultivation to Mexico's Valley of Tehuacán, where ancient cobs, dating back at least 5,000 years, were discovered.
The female inflorescences from these finds had reached such a degree of specialization that the hypothesis of natural dissemination was excluded. Therefore, the corn found in Mexico required man for its diffusion.
Corn is a grain that is naturally gluten-free, and is suitable for those with celiac disease. Not very complete from a nutritional point of view – because it is low in protein and B vitamins – it is, however, rich in iron, phosphorus, potassium, and vitamin A.
Corn is considered to be a food that is calming, purifying, and detoxifying. It is also an anti-cholesterol food, which helps stabilize the sugar supply to the brain and causes less rapid changes in blood glucose levels compared to other grains. Because of this, it is a useful food for diabetics and for those at glycemic risk.
The corn flour available in shops is more or less finely ground, precooked, or raw. Its best-known use in the kitchen is for the making of polenta.
The finely ground type usually takes 30 minutes to cook, while the coarse type takes double that. The precooked, or instant, types take only a few minutes because they have previously been steam cooked.
Cornmeal has numerous other uses in cooking: it can be used for breading, for the preparation of cakes, cookies, crepes, timbales, and bread. It is sweet in flavor but low in calories. Children also enjoy it.
Corn was the staple food in most of the American continent but totally unknown to the rest of the world. Its consumption has spread in Europe only since colonization, since the 16th century, especially in the form of polenta.