[Sca-cooks] Polenta

Terry Decker t.d.decker at worldnet.att.net
Tue Nov 28 16:01:05 PST 2006

Couscous is not pasta in the normal sense that it is a mix of flour, water, 
eggs, etc.  It is processed grain meal.  A coarse grain meal is dampened and 
rolled into pellets, said pellets being sieved and returned to the process 
until they don't pass through the sieve.  Finished pellets are dusted with 
dry semolina to keep them from clumping.  In most countries it is treated as 
a grain.  The term couscous (I have been informed) is also used to describe 
similar dishes of other grains than semolina.

The "weak protiens" are the adhesive protiens found on the surface of the 
grain and not the gluten that is common with pasta.

Polenta is a gruel of grain meal, that has been boiled and may have a 
consistence from porridge to bread.  These days it is usually served in 
slices, but in some cases it may be broken apart (I understand this to be a 
Sicilian custom) and used as a base for other dishes as is couscous.  Gachas 
appear to be an evolution of polenta.

Grits are any coarsely ground grain meal, so both polenta and couscous are 
commonly made from grits.

According to one source, couscous probably entered the Arab world from West 
Africa around the 10th Century.  Islam became a major force in the region 
between the 11th and 13th Centuries, so this ties quite nicely with the 
widespread use of couscous starting in the 13th Century (and possibly 
earlier).  I would speculate that before they used couscous the Moslems used 
grain meal and that the couscous replaced the plain meal in their dishes. 
This would give Medieval writers a reason to equate polenta and couscous.


>    Originally this message started out with the fact that I was
> confused between polenta and grits and I wanted to know if they are
> different or the same dishes. I think I have figured this out by going
> back to Flower's translation of Apicuis (1 AD) in which she translates
> /alicam/ as grits which consist of crushed barley or spelt that have
> been soaked over night. This seems to concur with the modern version
> using hominy or hulled corn kernels.
>    Now I became hung up of gachas, the forerunners on couscous which
> Antonio Gazquez Ortiz says are the same as polenta. Gachas in Arabic is
> /sawiq/, dried barley. Actually it is a bread soup boiled with lard. The
> basic ingredient is flour, breadcrumbs or slices of bread. Semolina
> could be used. Gachas is a typical dish in the Mancha where it is a
> wheat porridge consisting of wheat boiled in salted water to which milk,
> honey or another liquid could be added. There in medieval times the
> principle food of the lower classes consisted of bread but when wheat
> was scarce gachas was consumed as a substitute.
>    Sent Sovi recipe CXI and Nola's xxii are for gachas which Gazquez
> calls polenta. I guess I can accept his word.
>    Now this leads to confusion with couscous which prior to the 13th C
> was referred to as harira (the Jewish version of gachas) or gachas (with
> couscous grains), which is confusing as harira today is a well spiced
> soup consisting of finely mashed wheat. In the Middle Ages it was boiled
> wheat or breadcrumbs to which meat and mutton grease were added.
>    Now we have the problem of couscous being referred to as polenta in
> the Middle Ages. This fact is that if it is not properly dried before
> added to soup the couscous melts and becomes a sort of  polenta. Until
> the 14th and 15th centuries couscous did not evolve into what the dish
> is today. This may make it sound like couscous was not steamed prior to
> that time. I do not know.
>    Marie stated on 27 November that, "Couscous is a particular form of
> pasta and not a
> grain at all...."An odd note here is that Charles Perry says couscous is
> not like pasta as it is held together by 'weaker proteins' as in grains
> not gluten. He goes on to underline Mark's statement that couscous can
> be made with any grain and mentions bran, barley, maize, ground acorns
> and millet.
> Susan
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