— a pandemic pantry post —
POLENTA: A TEXTURE-Y COOKED CORNMEAL WHICH SERVES AS A BED FOR SAVORY STEWS, A FRIED EGG. BUT ALSO JUST FINE SERVED ON ITS OWN. IT’S PEASANT FOOD FROM THE NORTH OF ITALY, AND, IF YOU SKIP THE STOVETOP AND OVEN-BAKE IT, IT COULD NOT BE EASIER.
I AM UPDATING AND DOING SOME RE-HORN-HONKING OF THIS RECIPE AND METHOD. IT IS A PERFECT FOR THESE TIMES: A STRAIGHT-FROM-THE-PANTRY, ULTRA-COMFORTING, SO-SIMPLE DISH. WITH JUST THREE INGREDIENTS AND PERHAPS FIVE MINUTES OF ACTUAL WORK TIME, IT TRAVELS FROM CUPBOARD TO OVEN TO PLATE. AND TO BELLY AND SOUL.
I HAVE NO DOUBT, IN THESE FRIGHTENING TIMES, IT IS COMFORTING MANY ITALIANS RIGHT NOW. AND OH, I AM SENDING THEM LOVE AND HOPE, AND THE WISH THAT WE MAY SHOW THE COURAGE AND RESOLVE THEY HAVE AS WE FIGHT THE SAME ENEMY.
(Jump straight to polenta recipe)
Polenta, as I said, is peasant food from the north of Italy, a pleasantly texture-y cooked cornmeal mush, usually served as a bed for a savory stew of some kind or perhaps a fried egg, but also served on its own when doctored up with a little cheese (and/or mushrooms, or various aromatics).
Polenta is also occasionally served as a sweet breakfast cereal or even as dessert. When left to cool, it solidifies and you can slice it, and brown the slices, and use it any of the ways mentioned above, and some count it even more delicious. In all these iterations, it’s hearty, homey, satisfying.
Yet, because used in these ways, it’s much less common on American tables than pasta, mashed potatoes or rice, it has a special, undeniable mystique.
Polenta is also grits in the U.S. (beloved in the South, often sneered at in the North… sometimes by the same people who’ll pay $25 a plate for the same thing, called “polenta”, at a high-end metropolitan Italian restaurant.).
But polenta is always this: simply cornmeal cooked in water, with a little salt.
But simple does not necessarily mean easy, unless you use my recipe, which I learned from Paula Wolfert, which IS easy). Once you’ve made polenta in this manner, you will never go back. You’ll thank me, but really you should thank Paula Wolfert, and Ed Fleming, from whom she learned it.
So let us say this: Polenta can be easy, but has its fine points, as does polenta-making.
Or perhaps “coarse points” is more accurate. The proper texture is knobly, gritty and creamy, variable in the mouth. You get this only with coarse stone-ground whole-grain cornmeal.
You must not use fine-ground cornmeal.
And you must not use refined, fractionated, supermarket “grits”: white, pure starch, even-textured… without the grittiness that makes grits grits. 2020 note: Unless that’s all you have on hand.
(Especially, do not use instant grits, or instant grits with added ‘artificial and natural flavor’ butter-flavored. Twin, triple desecrations.)
To get the real thing, the best thing, polenta-wise, that rough cornmeal must be fairly freshly ground. When taken home, use it promptly, or seal and freeze it.
I recently (2020 note: this was originally written in 2016, when I still lived in Vermont) happened onto the best polenta cornmeal I have ever come across. Purchased at the Putney (Vermont) Farmer’s Market, it was raised, hulled, and ground by the folks at Sweet Pickins Farm, also in Putney (the picture of the hand with the whole corn is courtesy of Sweet Pickins; so a double thank you).
It was from an Italian flint corn, Red Floriani. I carried it home in its unshowy brown bag, popping said bag in a ziplock and freezing it. Saving it for a special occasion. That special occasion, as it turned out, was just plain dinner one night. I served it with this , the stew that is pictured above. Well! That polenta was be-still-my-heart good. I’d made extra, a good thing; the leftovers were part of breakfast the next morning.
Polenta’s traditionally cooked over direct heat in a pot, with a whole lot of stirring. Expect that as the cornmeal thickens, there’ll be big hot gallomping bubbles which spit hot cooked cornmeal at you (and your stove). You can easily get burned, and your stove will almost certainly require extra clean-up post-polenta, And let’s don’t even talk about scorched pan-bottoms.
This is the easier way. I’m going to give it to you below, if you haven’t already jumped to it. It’s straight out of my Passionate Vegetarian.
spray oil, or butter, vegan butter, or olive oil, for greasing pan (plus optional addition later)
4 to 5 1/2 cups water (less water gives you a thicker finished polenta, more a thinner; your call)
1 1/2 to 2 1/2 teaspoons fine salt, preferably sea salt, or to taste
1 cup cornmeal, stone-ground much preferred, coarse or fine
1. Preheat oven to 350.
2. Oil or grease a sturdy ovenproof baking dish — glass, ceramic, cast-iron, enamel, it doesn’t matter — with a 3 quart capacity.
3. Add all the ingredients (except optional fat) and stir well. The mixture will separate, the cornmeal sinking to the bottom. Don’t worry. Just put the pan in the oven, uncovered, and forget about it. Don’t give it a second thought until 40 minutes are up.
4. At this point, carefully remove from the oven and stir well. Then return the pan to the oven and bake 10 minutes longer.
5. Remove the pan from the oven and let it sit at room temp for 5 minutes. Serve the polenta as is, as an undergirding for almost any kind of savory stew or set a poached or fried egg, maybe with some steamed or sauteed garlicky spinach, on it. Or amend it with a splash of cream, some sauteed mushrooms or onions, a handful of grated cheese, more butter or vegan butter or olive oil.
Serves 4 as a substantial accompaniment.
PS: Refrigerate any leftovers, which will set-up (thicken). Then, tomorrow, lucky you: slice the leftover polenta, brown it in a little oil, and enjoy it all over again.
The photograph above, courtesy of Camellia Beans (they did a story with three of my recipes included, some time back) is of my Southern-Style Ragout of Butter Beans & Greens, over a nice helping of oven-baked grits. Oooh, that ragout… assuming you have fresh or frozen (because now is the time it is) vegetables, that needs to go in you #pandemicpantry recipe rotation list!