Polenta – Two National Treasures

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).

Combine cornmeal, salt, and water then bake @ 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes

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.

Traditional Polenta

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.

Cooked polenta hot from the oven. The texture is spoonable and moist

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.

Scoop cooling polenta into a greased ring mold then compress the contents

At about 30 minutes it is firm enough to unmold and brown in a skillet. Let cool completely before refrigerating.

Brown the firm cake over medium heat for about 10 minutes or till desired color is reached

For a rustic Italian dish worthy of a special occasion see Stuffed Chicken with Rosemary Polenta, and for an Italian spin on Eggs Benedict see Poached Eggs on Polenta.

Fried polenta cake topped with fresh salsa

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)

6 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by lois szydlowski on April 5, 2012 at 8:00 pm

    Wow Joy, those polenta cakes look delicious….thanks for all the photos…that really helps. I love those stack cans you have….I am going to use my tuna cans and try this…great comfort food…I look forward to your next post…


    • Thanks, Lois! I’m having a lot of fun working on improving the quality of the photos and it is a learning process, for sure. I might get brave enough to venture in to video before long!

      I love the stack cans. I have three different shapes that I use often – round, square, and diamond.They can be found most anywhere that sells cooking accessories. I bought mine years ago and the kit I purchased is no longer available but individuallly they are easily found, especially online. Just google ‘food ring molds’ and you’ll see hundreds.


  2. Posted by Maria on April 5, 2012 at 10:51 pm

    I’m so excited to try this oven method. I’m sure it’s much easier than stovetop method I use now.


    • I’d love to hear how that works for you, Maria. I just don’t make it on the stove top anymore since the oven makes it such a breeze!


  3. Posted by Deb G. on April 6, 2012 at 7:07 am

    Thanks Joy – I will definitely be trying that oven method as the stovetop one has not worked well for me in the past! And yummo for all those great topping ideas. I love Giada’s suggestion to slice more like thick fries and use as a french fry substitute! I had this in Italy for the first time and LOVED it, especially when they let it harden and grilled it up with a lovely mushroom ragu over it…..of course eating it under a chestnut tree in Tuscany with a cooking class and a hearty glass of red wine probably helped the flavor and the mystique some…….:-)


  4. Deb, I’m pretty sure that just about anything would be wonderful under a chestnut tree in Tuscany, and guaranteed with wine! That sounds like such a wonderful trip. Using polenta as a french fry substitute is a great idea. Thanks for your comment!!


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