Thank you to Deb for requesting a recipe for polenta. Those new to this traditional Italian dish may be surprised to know it has Native American roots. Made of ground, dried corn kernels which we know as cornmeal, polenta is prepared in a similar way to grits in the American south. Much like rice, cornmeal takes on the flavor of the company it keeps, making it one of the most versatile foods available.
Polenta can be prepared in the oven or more traditionally on the stove-top. The oven method is infinitely easier and the one I will cover here. The differences between the two methods are that the stove top version requires frequent stirring for up to an hour whereas the oven method is stirred only twice – once going into the oven and once coming out. The ingredients are the same for both: cornmeal, water, salt, and butter (or olive oil).
Used to performing as an obedient side dish, today’s polenta commands center plate in some of the more trendy restaurants. Its beauty lies in a chameleon-like quality allowing it to be served hot and soupy or firm as a cake and fried or baked, seasoned savory or sweet. You can play with the texture by adding water to thin or using less to thicken. Ultimately what you serve depends entirely on temperature, which means the wizardry comes from how you flavor the mixture.
Serves: 7 (4 oz. servings – ½ cup each)
1 cup polenta or medium ground cornmeal
1 quart water
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 tablespoon butter or olive oil
1/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan
Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a 2 quart greased baking dish, combine polenta, water and salt (if using table salt use ½ tsp). Bake for 40 minutes and stir – texture should be thick, smooth and spoonable as in the picture and not gritty when tasted. Stir in butter or oil and Parmesan cheese. If done, serve immediately while hot. Otherwise return it to the oven to cook longer if needed, up to 10 minutes more.
For firmer texture, remove polenta from the hot baking dish to a shallow, greased dish on a cooling rack. If using, spoon polenta in to a food mold or let it continue to firm up for slicing later (or cut with cookie cutters). Within 10 – 15 minutes the mixture will be fairly firm.
At about 30 minutes it is firm enough to unmold and brown in a skillet. Let cool completely before refrigerating.
To show some of the versatility of cornmeal, the fried cake made with the recipe above (without added Parmesan) is dressed with a fresh salsa for a touch of Mexico. Seasonings could include minced roasted chilies, onion, cumin, chipotle in adobo, Spanish Manchego cheese or a fajita seasoning blend to name a few. Think how you would flavor a rice pilaf to come up with ideas. Try a seasoned broth instead of just plain water. Add your choice of aromatic vegetables and dried seasonings at the beginning for a more uniform flavor. Fresh herbs or delicate seasonings are best added at the end or right at serving.
Some of my favorite combinations with polenta include:
- Fennel and sun-dried tomato with Pecorino Romano, pitted black olives, and shallots
- Pureed butternut or winter squash with goat cheese and sage
- Top with caramelized onions or leeks, fontina cheese and toasted pine nuts
- Add creamed corn, sautéed onions, thyme, topped with pecans, cranberries, and maple syrup
- Sautéed chard, mushroom, red bell pepper, and white cheddar (sometimes ham)