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. 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.
- 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.
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.
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
- Preheat oven to 400 degree F. (200 C)
- 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).
- Bake for 3 to 5 minutes or until golden and crisp. Cool.
- Mix tomatoes, garlic and basil in a small bowl. Sprinkle with a pinch of salt and stir in olive oil; set aside.
- Put polenta in a medium saucepan with the water and the salt; whisk to eliminate any lumps.
- 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.
- 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.
- Add the butter and cheese. Taste and add salt if necessary, and freshly ground pepper.
- 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
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How do you like to eat polenta?