Easy Polenta with Fresh Tomatoes and Parmesan Crisps

polenta with fresh tomatoes and parmesan crisps

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Polenta, like risotto, has had a long-held reputation for being fussy, requiring a laborious preparation involving constant stirring and extreme vigilance.  It brings to mind images of Italian grandmothers standing at wood stoves hunched over specialized copper pots slowly and patiently stirring with long wooden spoons until the perfect creamy texture is achieved. While it’s a charming image it has little to do with the way we prepare polenta today.  This humble but revered dish has evolved; it has transcended its ethnic roots and gone mainstream. And although I imagine few of us are cooking over wood stoves these days, polenta’s fickle reputation endures. This humble comfort food can be a cook’s best friend or dreaded nemesis.  A pot of hot polenta is like a blank canvas; it’s beautiful served plainly with a little butter and cheese to enhance its soothing charms or dressed up with a sauce. The unnerving part is how to achieve the highly sought-after smooth and creamy texture of properly prepared polenta, and that is where the debate gets heated. fresh tomatoes on the vine Pin It

Some Polenta enthusiasts claim you have to “rain” the polenta slowly through your fingers into the boiling water, and that you must stir constantly for the entire cooking time.  They caution you that if you step away for a moment your polenta will instantly and irreversibly go lumpy.

Others argue over the method of cooking: stove top or oven; the type of polenta: coarse or fine grind; and the cooking medium: water, cream or broth.  All this serves to overwhelm and intimidate and rarely leads to a consensus on what is in fact the “perfect” method for cooking polenta.

Today I timidly throw my hat into the ring and offer you my polenta cooking method; it’s perhaps a bit unorthodox, but it works and requires none of the fuss of traditional methods.  The following may be heresy to some, but it makes a good polenta.

parmesan crisps on baking sheet with fresh parmesan cheese

Polenta Basics:

  • I start with a fine or medium ground polenta as I find it yields a creamier and softer cooked polenta than the coarse ground.
  • I prefer to use water as the cooking medium to not overwhelm the pure flavor of the corn.
  • I also use a 5:1 ratio which results in a looser texture.

The Method:

Start by putting the polenta in the pot, adding cold water directly to that and then bringing it gently to a simmer.  No raining polenta into already boiling water, while whisking furiously to avoid lumps!

Once the mixture is merrily bubbling away I plop the lid on and walk away.  Returning only occasionally to give it a good stir and keep an eye out for doneness.  While there is a certain amount of stirring that must be done at the start, when it comes to a simmer, it can be left to be stirred only occasionally when one happens by the stove.

It’s impossible to give an exact cooking time for all so it is essential to taste it. The freshness, the type of corn from which it is made, the coarseness of the grind, and moisture content all influence how long polenta will take to cook.  Once the raw, starchy flavor is gone, the polenta is technically ready, but additional cooking makes it softer and thicker. Purists will tend to hang in there for 60 minutes or more of cooking but it’s not essential.

polenta with fresh tomatoes

It should be tender and creamy and a good consistency, like mashed potatoes, neither too thin nor too thick.  Know that polenta is forgiving.  If your polenta is too thick all is not lost, simply add more water and continue cooking.

The reward is a loose creamy polenta waiting to be finished with a handful of parmesan. Eat as is or top with fresh tomatoes dressed with garlic and basil, with perhaps a few parmesan crisps to finish.

RECIPE: Polenta with Fresh Tomatoes and Parmesan Crisps


  • ½ cup/ 57g freshly grated Parmesan (for the crisps)
  • 2 cups/ 1lb chopped fresh tomatoes
  • 1 small clove of garlic, finely chopped
  • A small handful of fresh basil, finely chopped
  • 1 Tablespoon/15ml of extra virgin olive oil
  • 5 cups/ 1.18 Liters of water
  • 1 tsp sea salt or kosher salt
  • 1 cup/ 160g of fine or medium grind polenta
  • 2 Tablespoons/30g of unsalted butter (optional)
  • ½ cup/ 57g freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (for the polenta)
  • Freshly ground pepper


  1. Preheat oven to 400 degree F. (200 C)
  2. Pour a tablespoon of Parmesan in a round on a silicone or parchment lined baking sheet and lightly pat down. Repeat with the remaining cheese, spacing the spoonfuls about a 1/2 inch apart, (you should have 8 to 10 mounds).
  3. Bake for 3 to 5 minutes or until golden and crisp. Cool.
  4. Mix tomatoes, garlic and basil in a small bowl. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and stir in olive oil; set aside.
  5. Put polenta in a medium saucepan with the water and the salt; whisk to eliminate any lumps.
  6. Put pan over medium-high heat, and bring to a simmer while stirring with a wooden spoon. The mixture should thicken and begin to bubble like lava.
  7. Reduce heat to medium-low and cover. Simmer polenta, covered, over low heat, stirring every 10 minutes until done. Stir from the bottom of the pot so that the thickened polenta doesn’t scorch. Polenta will be done in about 20 to 45 minutes, depending on grind.
  8. Add the butter and cheese. Taste and add salt if necessary, and freshly ground pepper.
  9. Serve in wide bowls, forming a well in the center. Spoon the tomato mixture into the well and serve right away with the Parmesan crisps.

Preparation time: 15 minute(s)

Cooking time: 45 minute(s)

Diet tags: Gluten free

Number of servings (yield): 4

Copyright © 2010-2011 gourmande in the kitchen.

How do you like to eat polenta?


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  1. says

    I just love to eat Polenta. I started eating it very recently .. only sometime early this year and ever since than it’s the most comforting meal for us.
    The parmesan crisps will taste lovely with this 🙂

  2. says

    Polenta is a wonderful side dish. I used to be intimidated by it (probably because of the exact scene you described in your opening paragraph). Once I realized how easy it was to make, there was no stopping me. Yours looks wonderful and the Parmesan crisps are a lovely addition.

  3. says

    I learned to cook polenta the “fussy” way and after a few years said “forget that” and started making it in the oven – but your method sounds perfect so I definitely going to give it a go!!!
    Truly gorgeous photos… as always!!

  4. says

    This post took my breath away from start to finish. I love the earthiness of polenta – the flavors, the textures; it’s such a comfort. The tomatoes are screaming out to me, so dang beautiful. Love your talent, words and light Sylvie!

  5. says

    I need to dive in now and make my first polenta. The “elaborate” is what kept me away for long. After seeing these gorgeous photographs and your tips, i think I will dare now.

  6. says

    Sylvie, this is really beautiful. It’s the perfect side dish, although under utilized because people don’t really know enough about it and assume it’s complicated and difficult and too much work. Beautiful pictures. And a lovely post.

  7. says

    Stunning photos! I bought a pack of polenta a little while back and have been waiting to try it, so I’m so glad to see this post. Now I have no excuses – your method makes it much easier than I thought it would be.

  8. says

    Sylvie, All my faves in one place. I love the flavor of “cooked cheese” and tomato…I’m a little ashamed to admit I have never eaten soft polenta, only panfried patties, but I am EAGER to try!

  9. says

    Yet another ingredients I haven’t tried before. I have seen polenta cakes around but never tried them. I think I need to come stay with you for a while so you can teach me how to cook right, how to eat right and how to photograph right!

  10. says

    You are so right about polenta being perceived as a no-go area – it’s something I think about with trepidation. You’ve inspired me to get back in the kitchen with it – that creamy mound of golden polenta with the tomatoes is fabulous. I’m making parmesan crisps to go with some pea and mint soup today.

  11. says

    We make a similar dish in Rajasthan and eat it with mint & coriander chutney. Your international version sounds exciting with garlic and cheese..will make it and see the difference. Lovely clicks as usual, Sylvie!

  12. says

    As Joy said on her FB link, can these photos be any more gorgeous?! What beautiful photos Sylvie (as usual)! As just when I was thinking I should learn more about polenta. I guess you heard it somehow as I said to someone that this is one thing that always makes me nervous and you share this very informative post! Thanks for sharing this post Sylvie 🙂

  13. says

    Really? Is it that easy? Oh my god, so many years stirring like crazy until it was done. I have now to try this technique, and the whole recipe as well! Looks delicious.

  14. says

    Sylvie, Your statement that “the following may be heresy to some but it works” could be my motto in the kitchen so you are now my official new friend. 🙂 Traditions rule in cooking just like so many other areas of life but they aren’t always useful considering present day products and technology. Following traditional methods can be so difficult or time-consuming that people opt for sub-standard processed food or take-out. (Now I’ll get down from my soapbox.)

    I’ve got the polenta in my cabinet so I will be trying your way very soon. Who would have thought of the Parmesan crisps with this but why not?

  15. says

    we make polenta often – ours a little different from yours but i still don’t stir constantly; like you, stir in the beginning and coming back occasionally to give it a stir every now and again – delicious!

  16. says

    I love polenta. I wonder how many readers outside Southern Africa know it is eaten here as part of most people’s indigenous diet. One version cooks it into hard, dry crumbs which sounds inedible, but is truly delicious. Soft mealie pap (pretty much polenta) is eaten with butter, sugar and milk for breakfast. And with a tomato and onion relish, it is standard as a side dish at braai’s (BBQ’s) – your recipe may be the perfect, upmarket side-dish to my next braai! Your cooking tips are spot on, btw!!

  17. says

    Beautiful photos! I love polenta…both wet like this and left to harden then grilled on the BBQ. My mum started using quick cook polenta a couple of years ago much to my dad’s dismay. So she did a taste test in him using both methods and he couldn’t tell the difference! Although that’s poss. that’s his tastebud…I do think the proper cooking method is better 🙂

  18. says

    Can there be something more rustic beautiful than this? Just beautiful Sylvie and inspiring too. Love your gentle commentary, coaxing me to begin ‘now’. We don’t get polenta in India {though we get cornmeal but I hear it isn’t the same! If I had some, I’d be ‘stirring’ some now!

  19. says

    I’m pretty sure that finding your blog and resulted in lunch ideas for the next… forever? Everything looks amazing, and your pictures are beautiful. I’m actually about to make some of Trader Joe’s “pre-cooked” polenta; this has totally inspired me to try making it from scratch!

  20. says

    I love polenta, especially creamy, but what I hate more than the lumps is that if you don’t stand and stir it it “pops”, spatters and burns your hand. And burns the pot. I will definitely try it your way!

  21. says

    Polenta is something we have often here and like you I pour water into the polenta to avoid lumps. We enjoy it often with a mushroom fricassee. Great tips and awesome shots!

  22. says

    I love polenta. I usually use a medium course grade though. I’ll try it with the more refined version and see how it turns out. Lovely!

  23. says

    Wonderful! The parmesan crisps is great on this photo and tomatoes of any kind works great with my family. I better prepare this for my Mother’s upcoming birthday.

  24. says

    I don’t know..it’s the myth more than reality..I raised my three kids on polenta (this is an Argentinean habit) so multiply that for the numbers of days by three….I have made polenta what..more than a thousand times?
    (it is not that they only ate polenta, but it was polenta with chicken, with sausage sauce, meatballs…) Once you get it right, you can’t fail…`
    Beautiful photos!

  25. says

    I love polenta and agree – you actually want that lovely corn flavour to shine through. The best thing abotu polenta is letting the leftovers slidify and then frying them until crisp the next day 😉 Those tomatoes are absolutely gorgeous!

  26. says

    I can’t believe how eloquently you describe polenta and how smexy you make it look in your photos. I have never had it (probably the same reservation or just a geographical thing) but I will have to be trying it soon.

  27. says

    Sylvie this is both beautiful and inspiring, I can’t wait to try making polenta with your technique – with the weather turning cooler, I have been craving warm, comforting food like this!

  28. Giselle H says

    Sylvie, after working up the courage I finally decided to try your recipe! One word: PERFECTION! I paired it with sautéed mushrooms instead and I also did eggplant stuffed with ricotta and baked. Thank you so much for the inspiration!