December 20, 2015
Ah, the many ways of polenta. When I was a young cook any mention of polenta warned that it was one of those messy and time-consuming dishes that only an Italian nonna could be bothered to make. Constant stirring, they said. Splatters of boiling cornmeal, they said (unless you remembered to stir with your longest-handled wooden spoon). Always and ever, they said, the threat of lumps!
Myself, I think the point of all this nay-saying was to keep the wonders of polenta out of the reach of North Americans. To keep it in Italy where it belonged.
Well, that cat has been out of the bag for a long time now. I have watched polenta recipes change from that labour-intensive one to a double-boiler method to an oven version. And most recently, a version that calls for stirring the cornmeal into the boiling water then clapping a lid on the pan and turning off the heat. You just leave it for 45 minutes and it cooks itself.
Without analyzing how cooking instructions could change so radically in so little time, I will just rhapsodize here about polenta—starting with a kind-of recipe.
Bring water to a boil. How much? For a cup of cornmeal (which can be fine or coarse-ground or a combination of the two) you will need four to eight cups of water, depending on how soft you want your first polenta meal to be. For softer, use the larger amount of water.
But the point of making polenta is making enough for leftovers, and the leftover polenta will always stiffen up, even if the original proportions were 8:1.
So. Bring your measured water to a boil. Add a teaspoon of salt. Sift the cornmeal into the water through the fingers of one hand while with the other hand you whisk like the very dickens. The mixture will quickly begin to thicken. Keep whisking until you can't any longer. Now turn off the heat, slap a lid on the pan, and put the whole pan into a 250 degree oven. It willl be ready in 40 minutes, but you can keep it—for reasons of timing—for an hour beyond that.
Spoon it onto plates and cover with a stew of meat or vegetables. This is bare-bones polenta.
Variations: 1) Stir in cheese (Parmigiano Reggiano or Grana Padano, or feta or Swiss or Gorgonzola or any bloomin' cheese that has the flavour you like—or that you have on hand).
2) Stir in a cup of pesto sauce or dried tomato sauce, or chopped dried tomato.
3) Spread the polenta onto a cookie sheet or several cake pans, making it about half an inch thick. Spread it with your fingers that you keep dipping into cold water, for ease of spreading and to avoid burning your fingers. Let it cool briefly then cover with plastic wrap directly on top of the polenta.
Here are things to do with that flat pan of polenta:
Cut it into triangles or squares or circles (or hearts and gingerbread men, if that's your pleasure) and fry in a little olive oil. Or bake it at 400 degrees instead, first brushing both sides with olive oil. Top these crispy pieces with anything at all: a steam-basted egg, cheese, pesto sauce, tapenade, chopped tomato mixed with basil. In other words, treat them as you would bruschetta or crostini.
Cut the polenta into strips that are French-fry size, brush with olive oil and bake at 400 degrees until crisp, about 20 minutes, turning once in the middle of the baking. The thicker your original polenta mixture, the firmer these fries will be; this is important only if you plan to eat them with your fingers.
Please don't buy already-prepared polenta. There may be some brands that are edible; admittedly I stopped looking after trying one brand that was horrible (years ago). If you have a pan, a heat source, and cornmeal, you can make your own for a fraction of the cost.
Also, don't go out looking for something called "polenta" meal. It is cornmeal. If you do find "polenta" it will be no better and more expensive.
Originally polenta was made from chestnut flour, then later from buckwheat flour. You can find instructions for both of these still, but we are more familiar with the taste of the cornmeal variety.
Polenta is a boon to busy cooks and a leftover worth its space in the refrigerator.