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Polished Polenta: Indulge in Italian Comfort Food.

Italy's favorite comfort food can be as gourmet or as down-home as you'd like...

As the winter cold sets in, we crave rich, filling meals, and polenta fits the bill perfectly. Smooth, creamy, and oh-so versatile, polenta is the perfect staple to add to your menu this month.

"Mangi il Polenta"

Despite its fancy name, polenta is really just cornmeal cooked slowly in water. The dish is a staple in northern Italian cuisine, and can be served as a breakfast cereal, a side dish, a snack, or even a dessert. Taste it once and you'll understand its popularity, and be eager to try your hand at the plethora of polenta recipes available.

Gear up for your first polenta-preparing adventure by finding a high-quality cornmeal (some may be marketed specifically as polenta). Remember that once opened, the flavor and nutrients of polenta are best preserved in the refrigerator.

Make the Patient Chef's Polenta

Though it's not hard to make, most methods of preparing polenta require time and attention. The traditional Italian technique involves over an hour of constant stirring over a wood fire in a copper-bottomed pot. Modern chefs have found, however, that half-an-hour in a double boiler or a heavy saucepan does the trick nicely. Follow these steps for basic polenta.

  1. Boil the Water: For soft polenta, use 4 parts water to 1 part polenta. Three parts water to one part polenta is the recommended ratio for firm polenta. Fortunately, polenta is forgiving and can be thickened or watered-down during the cooking process--which you'll learn with practice.
  2. Add the Polenta (and a pinch of salt): A whisk is a helpful tool as you slowly pour the polenta into the pot. Mix steadily while adding polenta to keep the mixture from forming lumps.
  3. Stir, Stir, Stir: Turn the heat down and cook the polenta, stirring constantly for at least 30 minutes, to allow the flavor of the corn to fully develop. Keep some boiling water on hand to add if the mixture gets too thick.
  4. Finish It Off: Once your arms are sufficiently sore and the polenta is done, taste it. Does it need salt? At this point you can add some butter and serve it soft, or pour it into a mold to harden and then broil, grill, fry, or bake.

Polenta Possibilities

There's no end to the ways to prepare and serve polenta. In its soft form it's tasty for breakfast (as an alternative to oatmeal), and the perfect side for pork and chicken, especially when mixed with cheeses, toasted nuts, or sauteed vegetables.

Once you've experimented with soft polenta, try molding it. Pour cooked polenta onto a cookie sheet, let it harden, and then cut it into shapes, which you can coat in bread crumbs and herbs to fry as an appetizer, or bake with sauce, vegetables, and cheese as a gratin.

With Italian sausage and bell peppers, fontina and leeks, or molasses and mascarpone, there's no bad way to serve polenta. Let your creativity loose as you develop your signature polenta preparation this winter.

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