What we’re cooking this week: Cush Cush

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Jim Dixon wrote about food for WW for more than 20 years, but these days most of his time is spent at his olive oil-focused specialty foods business Wellspent Market. Jim has always loved to eat and he encourages his customers to cook by sending them recipes every week via his newsletter. We are happy to see him again creating special dishes just for WW readers.

I read about cush cush for years before I figured out how to make it. Dave Robicheaux, the deeply flawed Louisiana cop in James Lee Burke’s crime novels, often cooked it for breakfast. At first I thought it was another version of fried cornmeal porridge, leftover cooked oatmeal, or polenta cut into slices and fried until crispy. Or maybe it was day-old cornbread crumbled in a hot skillet. I couldn’t google it when I read Robicheaux’s first book in the late 1980s, but eventually the internet was filled with a million recipes, including several for different versions of cush cush (also spelled coush coush or layer layer).

It’s basically pan-fried cornbread. You mix cornmeal with milk or water, salt and maybe baking powder, then cook it in a skillet on the stove, preferably in bacon fat. Robicheaux usually pours a little milk and cane syrup over his bowl, but I’ve also seen savory versions with onion, hot peppers, and sometimes crackers or greens.

The name itself comes from Senegambian kush, the steamed or boiled grains of millet or sorghum that were a staple of the West African diet. French colonization transformed the name into couscous, and enslaved Africans in the New World made it from that continent’s native grain, corn. Like many foods brought to America by slaves, cush cush has lost its connection to history and today is often referred to as Cajun cush.

The loaded story aside, cush cush demonstrates how a handful of basic ingredients and a simple cooking technique can still be very tasty. It’s even better if you use whole-grain cornmeal, which you should store in the freezer because the oils in the germ can go rancid. You won’t find it at the grocery store, but you might get lucky at the farmer’s market. Or you can order it online from sources like Anson Mills (and we often have local cornmeal from Ayers Creek Farm at Wellspent Market). But the real secret is the good fats, whether it’s bacon grease, butter or extra virgin olive oil. Although cane syrup is traditional, it can be hard to find. I found sorghum syrup at New Seasons, and it tastes almost the same as cane syrup.

2 cups cornmeal

1 cup of water*

1 teaspoon baking powder**

1/2 teaspoon of salt

3-4 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

Sorghum or maple syrup, for serving

*some recipes call for milk, and this makes the cush a bit richer

** optional, but it gives the cushion a bit more body

Mix cornmeal, water, baking powder and salt into a thick paste. Heat the olive oil in a heavy bottomed skillet, preferably cast iron, over medium heat until it begins to ripple. Add the batter, spread evenly and cook undisturbed for about 10 minutes or until the bottom begins to brown. Break up the cush cush with a spatula, turning the pieces over. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for another 15 minutes.

Serve with syrup. Milk, cream or yogurt with jam or honey are also good.

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