Polenta hails from Northern Italy and is basically a cornmeal porridge. In America, it is also called cornmeal mush. What's especially enticing about this humble, three-ingredient dish is its flexibility. You can substitute broth, or a mix of broth and white wine, for the cold water and salt. For breakfast or dessert polenta, consider using milk instead of water. Get creative with seasonings and stir-ins as well, or use polenta as a base for endless sauces, such as the mushroom sauce in Creamy Polenta with Portobello Mushroom Sauce. Cooled, firm polenta can be sliced or cut with shaped cutters into designs and, if desired, pan-fried until brown and slightly crisp, giving it a completely different spin.
While any kind of cornmeal will work, coarse ground cornmeal makes polenta with the best texture. Look for cornmeal labeled polenta at the grocery store or a specialty market, or one labeled coarse ground. Cornmeal also comes in both white and yellow styles. Either can be used, but yellow is more traditional and more attractive in polenta. If you use regular cornmeal, you may need to increase the water in the saucepan and decrease the cooking time, depending on the recipe.
1. Pour 2-1/2 cups water into a medium saucepan. Bring the water to boiling over medium-high heat.
- Tip: If using regular cornmeal instead of coarse ground, increase the water in the saucepan to 2-3/4 cups. Also reduce the cooking time to 10 to 15 minutes after the mixture boils in Step 4.
2. Meanwhile, in a medium bowl combine 1 cup coarse ground cornmeal and 1 teaspoon salt. Use a wire whisk to stir in 1 cup cold water. Combining some cold water with the cornmeal mixture helps keep the cornmeal from clumping when added to the hot water.
3. Slowly and carefully add the cornmeal mixture to the boiling water, stirring constantly. The continual stirring helps the cornmeal mixture dissolve smoothly in the boiling water without clumping.
4. Cook and stir until the mixture returns to boiling. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue to cook for 25 to 30 minutes or until the mixture is very thick and soft. During the cooking time, the cornmeal will soak up the water and become thick. It is important that you adjust the heat as needed to maintain a slow boil and stir frequently to keep the mixture from scorching.
- Tip: Use care not to get too close to the pan because the hot mixture can splatter as it thickens.
5. At this point, the polenta is ready to spoon into bowls and serve as a side dish on its own or as a base for a sauce. Or,you can season it with the stir-in suggestions below or your own favorite ingredients. Or continue on to make Firm Polenta or Pan-Fried Polenta, below.
- Decrease the salt by half and, after cooking, stir in 1/2 cup (2 ounces) of your favorite cheese, such as shredded Parmesan, Fontina, cheddar, or provolone, or crumbled feta or goat cheese.
- Decrease the salt by half and, after cooking, stir in 2 tablespoons salted butter or finely chopped prosciutto, ham, or cooked bacon.
- After cooking, stir in 2 tablespoons snipped fresh basil or Italian parsley or 1 teaspoon snipped fresh oregano or thyme.
Cooled or chilled polenta sets up quite firm, so you can slice it or cut it into shapes.
2. Cover the polenta and place in the refrigerator for at least 1 hour or until firm.
3. To bake, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Uncover the polenta and bake until heated through, about 25 minutes. Transfer to a wire rack for 5 minutes. This gives it time to firm up a bit and slice better.
4. With a sharp knife, cut the polenta into six wedges to serve.
These toasty-brown slices make an excellent side dish just as they are or topped with a light tomato sauce or sprinkling of cheese. For breakfast, serve with additional butter and honey or maple syrup.
1. Prepare soft polenta as directed until cooked. Carefully pour the hot soft polenta into a 7-1/2x3-1/2x2-inch or 8x4x2-inch loaf pan. Let it stand, uncovered, for 30 minutes to cool.
2. Cover the polenta and place in the refrigerator to chill for 4 hours or overnight.
3. Uncover the polenta and run a thin metal spatula around the edges of the pan. Remove the polenta loaf from the pan and use a sharp knife to cut it crosswise into 12 slices.
4. To pan-fry, in a large skillet or on a griddle heat 1 tablespoon butter over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to medium. Cook half of the polenta slices for 16 to 20 minutes or until brown and crisp, turning once halfway through cooking.
5. Repeat with remaining polenta slices, adding 1 tablespoon butter to the skillet before adding the polenta slices.
Polenta Recipes to Try: