Like with rice, beans and pasta, when you make polenta you’re part of a universal culinary network. Each has its distinctive character and flavor and each has a vast culinary repertoire. Polenta, ancient peasant food, was necessary for survival long before we decided to relish and make it important again. We know this stuff, it’s in our genes.
Maybe you can’t get beyond the polenta is mush is grits mindset. Well yes, grits it is, hallelujah. Polenta cooked properly is soft and luxurious comfort food. Silky even. Gluten free, an egg’s worth of protein in a serving, potassium and vitamin C. Polenta’s pretty good stuff on its own. But make a pot of polenta and embellish it. Like refrigerator soup, use what you have on hand that’s appealing, garnish the polenta and call it a meal as with sautéd sweet peppers and sausage, or with roasted garbanzos and leeks – each described below.
There’s soft polenta and hard polenta. One basic recipe gives you both options, and then get creative. Think about flavors and foods that appeal, decide if it fits with polenta and give it a try.
Like grits, polenta is inexpensive and rib-sticking. Like pasta and risotto, it’s a culinary chameleon. You can serve polenta plain, with butter and salt and pepper, white, and yellow. You can grill it and serve it with sausages or with game birds. You can melt sharp cheese on it. You can stir meats or vegetables or cheeses into it. And although it’s made from corn, which often flattens a glass of wine, polenta gets along with wines just fine.
Basic Polenta Recipe
From The Seasons of the Italian Kitchen Cookbook. For 4 servings.
Ingredients: 1 1/2 t salt/ 4 C water (I’ve used chicken stock too)/ 1 1/2 C cornmeal, fine, medium or coarse. Fine cornmeal cooks up faster and smoother.
Directions: Use a broad bottomed pan for faster cooking/ Dissolve the salt in the water/ Add cornmeal gradually, whisking or stirring vigorously as you do so/ On medium heat, stir more or less continuously until liquid comes to a simmer and begins to thicken/ Turn heat to low and, using a large spoon, continue to cook and give a thorough stir every minute or so/ Polenta will continue to thicken and eventually begin to stick to itself, rather than to the pot/ 15 – 25 minutes for cooking depending on size of pot and type of cornmeal.
Begin to taste the polenta after fifteen minutes or so of cooking. Some people prefer it with a little cornmeal bite, others not. Cook for a longer or shorter time according to your own preference. Medium ground cornmeal took about 20 minutes. Alton Brown’s recipe for polenta calls for getting it going on the stove top, putting a lid on and finishing it in the oven. Check it out.
For soft polenta, pour into serving dishes or a platter and eat immediately. Add butter if you like, grated cheese, whatever suits your fancy.
For grilled polenta, pour mixture, without having added any additional liquid, onto a flat plate or marble that has been lightly moistened with cold water. Flatten and smooth with a spatula dipped in water and then allow to cool completely. Cut into desired shapes and grill in butter or olive oil, a few minutes on each side until lightly golden. Serve on its own or with any variety of stews, sauces, roasted vegetables . . . with roasted garbanzos and leeks. Recipe below.
Polenta with Sausage & Pepper Recipe
Make a batch of polenta. While it’s cooking sauté a sliced onion and red pepper sprinkled with fresh or dried basil and/or oregano. In another pan cook some Italian sausage. When sausage is done and sliced, place together with onion/sweet pepper mixture. Serve on soft, just cooked polenta with maybe a spoonful of tomato sauce and a generous sprinkling of Parmesan cheese.
Grilled Polenta with Roasted Garbanzos & Leeks Recipe
Prepare grilled polenta as described above.
Ingredients & Directions for roasting: Drain garbanzo beans and put in a bowl, toss with plenty of olive oil (2 – 3 tablespoons for 2 cup of beans), 1 – 2 t cumin, salt and pepper to taste. Clean and then slice 2 medium or 3 small leeks lengthwise, drizzle with oil, salt and pepper. On a parchment lined roasting pan spread beans and leeks evenly, roast at 400 degrees for about 20 minutes. Remove leeks sooner if they become golden brown.
Dressing: 1 finely chopped clove of garlic, 2 T fresh squeezed lemon juice, 4 T olive oil, 1 t cumin, 1 t lemon zest, salt & pepper to taste/ Whisk together and reserve/ Drizzle 3 Tablespoons on garbanzos and leeks immediately after removing from oven/ Add 1 tablespoon of dressing to yogurt/sour cream mixture/ Drizzle remaining dressing over beans and plolenta when serving.
Sauce: In a small bowl stir to soften 1/2 C plain yogurt and/or sour cream. Stir in 1 T of the lemony dressing. Reserve and use to garnish, to ‘sauce’ the beans and polenta when serving.
Maybe the idea of roasted garbanzos doesn’t appeal. The idea here is to find accompaniment for grilled or soft polenta that sounds delicious to you. Could be grated cheese is enough.
Some other ideas to get you going: Doesn’t hurt to stir in a big chunk of butter at the end, or some half and half, not too much. Polenta is a perfect vessel for dried wild mushrooms. Rehydrate, chop and add to polenta while it’s cooking. Sauté shallots, mushrooms, any finely chopped ingredient you like and then add the water, salt and cornmeal and proceed from there. Stir in pesto (as shown above) and/or grated cheese, dark greens after the cooking, but while polenta is still piping hot. Stir in a bunch of chopped, fresh herbs as polenta begins to cool. Serve a fried egg and chives along side polenta.