When Americans think of Italian food they first think pasta. Or maybe pizza? But probably not polenta. Yet polenta is an equally traditional and widespread a dish as pasta. In fact it has been eaten in Italy since Roman times, though it was made with different starches until the 16th century when corn made it’s way to Europe. Though polenta was originally “peasants food” it transcends class today.
Polenta is a simple dish, essentially corm meal simmered in water until a thick almost oatmeal like dish is formed. Polenta is eaten creamy, right in this state or a bowl or container can be used to “set” the polenta. Once firm the polenta can be cut into pieces and fried, baked, or even grilled. Polenta is a wonderful complement to meats, as it soaks up the juices and becomes even more flavorful.
You may have seen or even tried polenta from your local grocery store. It is packaged similarly to ground beef, in a tube shape. Some versions have herbs or other flavors added to the polenta. While the packaged versions are ok, homemade polenta is a whole different ballgame. Fortunately homemade polenta is surprisingly easy to make. But I will be the first to say it requires tending to get it right. Essentials of Italian Cooking gives two basic recipes for polenta. The first, which yields the ‘most fragrant’ polenta, requires 45 minutes of continuous stirring. Even the “no stir method” (which yields a very nice polenta by the way) requires stirring every 10 minutes or so for 45 minutes.
Polenta’s texture and flavor can very quite a bit depending on the cornmeal used to make it. A finer grid of cornmeal yields a creamier final product. And of course a coarser grind yields the reverse. Also very important is quality of cornmeal you use in the recipe. Because polenta is really a very simple dish, with very few ingredients there is nothing to disguise a less flavorful product. To make the most authentic version cornmeal imported from Italy would be the most ideal. However if imported cornmeal isn’t likely to be available to you locally (which it wasn’t for me) I found Bob’s Red Mill Stone Ground 100% Whole Grain Medium Grind Cornmeal to produce a very pleasant polenta. The flavors were balanced, you certainly picked up the corn, but it wasn’t overly assertive, nor are there any added ingredient’s in Bob’s cornmeal, so no sugar or anything else clouded the flavors of the polenta. I feel like Bob’s generally provides high quality products and cook with them frequently. (No I’m not sponsored by Bob’s but if anybody from that company is reading feel free to get in touch!)
As I’ve been working my way through these Italian recipe I’ve found polenta to really be a pleasant change from my other starches. I find that any dish where I might want to serve mashed potatoes tends to pair well with creamy polenta, even if it isn’t an Italian dish. And grilled, fried, or baked just feels really fresh and different. I highly recommend adding polenta to your repertoire of dishes.
P.S. I relize that I should also add, polenta, creamy or otherwise tastes really good with fresh parmesan and/or herbs. You can add them right over the top with creamy polenta. Or mix them in to the polenta before you put it into a container to “set” it, and then it will be mixed right through when you grill/bake/fry. Yum guys, seriously.
- 7 cups of water or chicken broth
- 1 tablespoon of kosher salt
- 1 and 2/3 cup cornmeal, medium or coarse grind
- 1. Over high heat bring the water to a boil. Add the salt and stir well to distribute.
- 2. Reduce the heat to a medium high. Add the cornmeal a little bit at a time using a slow but continuous pour. Using a wire whisk stir the entire time you are adding the cornmeal.
- 3. After all the cornmeal is in the pot continue to stir well for about two minutes, to ensure the cornmeal does not clump. Bring the heat down so that the water continues to simmer well but is not boiling. Cover the pot and allow the pot to simmer on it's own.
- 4. In ten minutes return to the pot, and stir for a full minute. Again stir well to prevent clumping. Recover and allow the pot to simmer again.
- 5. Repeat step four three more times, a total of forty minutes will have passed after completing this process three times. There will be less water in the pot each time you uncover to stir, the cornmeal will absorb the water gradually. After the forty minutes the cornmeal will have come together, and begin to appear oatmeal like in texture.
- 6. Leave the pot uncovered and allow the cornmeal to cook for an additional five minutes. At the end of the five minutes, just prior to removing the pot from the heat, stir very well, loosing the polenta from the pot. The cornmeal will pull cleanly away from the pot during this step, so you will know it is done. At this point the polenta can be served creamy. Or the polenta can be set by pouring into a bowl or container, see step seven to set.
- 7. Pour the polenta into the container smooth with the back of a spoon or rubber spatula and cover tightly. After 15 minutes the polenta will be set and can be removed from the container and will retain the shape of the container. At this point the polenta can be baked or fried. If intending to grill allow the polenta to set for several hours in the fridge. The polenta will save well in it's container for several days if refrigerated and sealed tightly.
- Adding fresh herbs or cheese to the polenta before setting works very well. Stir them in prior to step seven if desired.