The “American Melting Pot” is far older, larger, and even more diverse than most people imagine.
After Columbus reconnected Eurasia and Africa with the Americas, the world began to change in ways it never had before. Europeans, Africans, Asians, and American Indians began migrating out of their landmasses of origin. Some movement was voluntary, much was not. . . . but people of all origins soon found themselves flung around the globe, forced to interact and work with each other, mixing their cultures and genetics together to form hybrid societies.
With hybrid societies come hybrid cuisine. The world’s first fusion food is born as people and their culinary traditions converge.
Did I mention we’ll also cover the origin of hard liquor and mixed cocktails? Don’t miss this episode.
Polenta may not sound so exciting, but when made with love, it can be one of the most delicious and satisfying dishes you’ve had in some time. When the exotic foreign mystery grain of maize came to Europe via the Columbian Exchange, Europeans treated it like they did every other grain. They ground it and cooked it into porridge, adding their own local ingredients like dairy products. Today, this creamy and cheesy cornmeal porridge is still a favorite staple of Italian, especially northern Italian, cuisine.
A little while after, tomatoes followed to the old world, and though not considered edible at first, gradually evolved into items of culinary interest, onward to a destiny of being a beloved ingredient across the continent today. Salsa Pomodoro just means tomato sauce, but being the original Italian word for tomatoes, it hints that the first of these american fruits to arrive in Europe may have been yellow, and not red.
I’m still using some red tomatoes here because they look better with Polenta, but I’m also using some yellow ones to honor this original appearance. Though the original preparation was a simple but tasty dish of raw tomatoes with olive oil, cooking into sauce must soon have followed. But this is not your every day tomato sauce. Here, onions, mushrooms, a little anchovy, all make for a very rustic, meaty concoction, an acidic umami bomb that is not blended, packed with fresh herbs and resulting in a sauce that is simultaneously deep, bright, chunky and yet saucy, a full of flavor to counterpoint the rich polenta.
To further explore Episode 20, the Columbian Exchange, we’ll be making some classic recipes that were only possible once Eurasia and the Americas began mixing their ingredients.
To start, I can’t think of a better example than Mexican mole sauce. Mesoamerican chocolate and chili peppers bring the strongest and most unique flavors to this dish, but they’re used with Old World bread, sugar, spices, nuts, and seeds, and of course pork. Pork is ubiquitous in Mexican cuisine today but wasn’t around until Spanish colonists brought their pigs en masse to the New World, shaping a new cuisine in the process.
Mole has a reputation for being complicated, but it’s really not. It just has a lot of ingredients. Basically though, you just need to cover five bases for a good mole sauce: spiciness (from chilis), acidity (from chocolate, tomatoes, and citrus), sweetness (from dried fruit and cane sugar), spices, and thickeners (nuts, seeds, and bread).
To be extra authentic, pick up a cone of pilonciillo sugar from a Latin grocery store. Also, a more classic chili for this recipe would be pasilla negro chilis, but I am using the varieties I grew in my garden and dried this past summer. I’ve got chipotle, ancho, and cayenne.
For millions of years, the two main hemispheres of planet earth were separated by an impassible ocean. North/South America and Eurasia/Africa, two divergent ecosystems, food chains, and human civilizations. . . Then one day in 1492, a guy named Columbus passed that impassible ocean, and began the momentous and tumultuous process of bringing the Old World and the New World back together, into one.
Human civilization and the ecosystems of earth itself would never be the same.