Oh, Polenta!

June 4, 2016
If you're looking for easy, here it is! Forget what you might have heard about the wizened nonna stirring her polenta for an hour with a long wooden spoon (long because otherwise she'd have multiple burns from bubbling cornmeal). Presumably that actually happened in the past, but over the last ten years the instructions have become easier and easier--and definitely hands-off.
The method I use now is amazingly simple and also not time-sensitive. You can hold it for up to an hour (maybe longer; I've never tried) if your guests are delayed by traffic or fecklessness.
First, amounts. The proportion of cornmeal to liquid is what makes the polenta soft or firm. But this affects only the first incarnation of the polenta. When you refrigerate the leftover polenta, no matter how soft you made it in the beginning, it will firm up so that you can slice and saute or grill it. Let's say you use 1 cup of cornmeal* to 6 cups of liquid**. That will make enough polenta for six to eight servings. Talk about a bargain, eh?
Put your cornmeal in a measuring cup with a spout. Bring the liquid (I like water mixed with milk; see ** below for other options) to a boil in a large pot and add a teaspoon and a half of salt. Now, with a whisk in your dominant hand and the measuring cup in the other, slowly pour the cornmeal into the liquid, whisking like the dickens as you do so. As the liquid returns to the boil, keep whisking. The mixture will thicken very quickly***. Now remove the pan from the burner (if your stove is electric) or turn off the burner (gas) and clap a lid on the pan. Leave it for 45 minutes. You have now made polenta.
The first time I used this technique, I didn't quite trust that it would work (it does), so after covering the pan I put it into a 250 degree oven. At this point you can leave it for up to an hour beyond the 45 minutes needed to cook it.
To serve, spoon it into flat soup plates and cover with your desired sauce (ragu is great, but butter and Parmesan are also good, in which case you have a good accompaniment to a stew or chop or sausage or a mixture of grilled or roasted vegetables). You can also spoon it into a large serving bowl, of course. A traditional but casual approach calls for dumping the polenta onto a large cutting board and setting it in the middle of the table so diners can serve themselves.
As soon as you have taken the amount you need for that meal, pour the remaining polenta into a baking dish****, cover it, and refrigerate. The next day cut the polenta into squares and saute or grill them. For a crisper crust, dredge the slices in flour (can be GF or wheat) then fry them in olive oil and/or butter until brown and crispy on both sides. Even without the dredging, the slices will crisp a little.
For the dish pictured at the top of this post, I dredged the slices and fried them on both sides. A few minutes after I turned them, I steam-basted two eggs***** in another pan for 4 or 5 minutes then plated the polenta slices and topped them with the eggs. Notice that I like freshly ground black pepper with my eggs!
*You do NOT need to buy something labeled "polenta" for this. Buy cornmeal. I like a mixture of coarse and fine cornmeals, but it's up to you. The fine makes a very silky smooth polenta, while the coarse adds some nice texture.
**Half milk and half water will make a creamier tasting polenta. You can use chicken stock (or beef, if it is to accompany a beef dish), or a mixture of stock and water. Vegetable stock is also quite acceptable. Or, of course, use all water.
***Just before putting the lid on, you can stir in grated Parmesan (or any cheese that appeals to you). For an entirely different approach, take this opportunity to make scrapple--cornmeal mush (which is of course what polenta is) with the addition of cooked sausage meat. The scrapple version is best when fried up in slices, as described for the leftover polenta. For a delicious breakfast or brunch dish--with historical and geographical overtones--serve fried scrapple with maple syrup. Or even better, sorghum syrup, if you can find it.
****The batch I poured into my 8x8-inch baking dish ended up being over an inch thick, so when I was ready to fry up slices, I cut them in half horizontally in order to increase the ratio of crisp crust to soft filling.
*****You can find the instructions for steam-basting an egg in the Eggs chapter of Fast & Fearless Cooking for the Genius.  But if you haven't yet ordered your copy, here's what you do: film the bottom of a cast-iron (or other heavy-bottomed) skillet with butter or olive oil. Over medium-low heat drop in an egg or two. Fill one of the half-shells of the egg(s) with water and pour the water into the skillet. Cover immediately and cook on LOW heat for 4 to 5 minutes, depending on how runny you like your yolk. If you are very picky about the softness or hardness of your yolk, then check every half-minute after the 3-minute mark.


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