While many think of only pasta and pizza as the top Italian foods, Polenta is king in Northern Italy. The true definition of comfort food, polenta is satisfying and very versatile. From very humble origins, polenta now appears on the fanciest restaurant menus. Traditional polenta is coarse ground corn meal; it is the size of the ground grain that defines it as polenta. Corn meal can be purchased from fine to coarse grind. Fine and medium grinds are generally used for making corn bread, muffins and in most baking. When recipes call for polenta, it is the coarsest grind that they refer are referring to. Polenta is an excellent source of iron, magnesium, phosphorus, zinc and vitamin B6 (it is also a nutritious addition to a Celiac’s diet).
Polenta is a welcomed change from rice, potatoes or pasta. Like pasta, there is an almost limitless number of things to pair with polenta--perhaps even more because polenta works well with sweet sauces as well as savory. You can’t really go wrong! Polenta is most often used as a side dish but it can be topped with just about any type of meat or fish for an excellent main dish. Very satisfying on a chilly winter's day is a bowl of polenta served with tomato sauce, or sausage or with just a good quality butter or cheese (gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh goat cheese, or just about any cheese).
Allowed it to harden, and it can be sliced and sautéed, grilled or fried prior to serving . The slices can be used in a casserole — layering it with sauce and cheese, ground meats - a la lasagna or eggplant parmesan. The slices can also be used a side with a nice crisp salad. You can even cut hardened polenta into shapes with cookie cutters!
To use as a base for a Polenta Pizza – pour your cooked polenta it into a pan and chill. The polenta becomes firm almost immediately. It will keep it in the fridge for up to 2 days. The size of the pan will determine the thickness of your pizza “crust”. You can now use just about any pizza topping to create your polenta pizza. Cut into squares – this also makes a great appetizer.
A few breakfast ideas: top with a high quality honey, with poached eggs and ham or smoked salmon, when making pancakes, replace some of the flour with polenta to add texture and flavor.
Polenta holds a very special place in the heart of Food411’s Resident Chef
, Silvia Bianco. The following is her special note to you on Polenta (along with her family recipe!):
"As a girl growing up in a large Italian family, polenta took center stage in communal meals with aunts, uncles and cousins. It was served warm and creamy and presented on the center of a large, wooden cutting board like a mound of mashed potatoes. It was then shaped into a large ring with a hollow area in the center to which a richly flavorful meat and tomato sauce (much like a classic Bolognese) was ladled. Family members would then spoon portions onto their plates enjoying the perfect partnership between gruel and sauce. Gathering around this communal plate was so much more than good eats…it’s symbolic meaning acted as a sort of kitchen table camp fire that led to rounds of story telling that the elders in the family joyfully passed onto the next generation, feeding them in spirit something that would last far beyond an immediate hunger for something tasty. This is shared food at its best."
Basic Polenta Recipe (serves 4)
1 pound or slightly more of coarsely ground corn meal (you want corn meal the consistency of fine to medium-grained sand, not flour, and if possible stone-ground)
- 2 quarts boiling water (have more handy)
- A heaping teaspoon of salt
Set the water on the fire in a wide bottomed pot and add the salt. When it comes to a boil, add the corn meal in a very slow stream (you don't want the pot to stop boiling), stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep lumps from forming. Continue stirring, in the same direction, as the mush thickens, for about a half-hour (the longer you stir the better the polenta will be; the finished polenta should have the consistency of firm mashed potatoes), adding boiling water as necessary. The polenta is done when it peels easily off the sides of the pot.
Silvia’s Meat Sauce
3 to 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (or enough to cover the bottom of the pan)
Pinch of red pepper flakes
- 1 small onion, finely chopped
- 1/2 medium clove garlic, minced
- 1/2 lb ground pork
- 1/2 lb ground turkey
- ½ lb. of sausage meat (casing removed)
- 3 to 4 tablespoons sherry
- 2 16 oz cans of crushed tomatoes (or whole peeled crushed by hand)
- 1/4 cup half and half
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- 1 tablespoon Italian (flat-leaf) parsley, stems removed and chopped, for garnish
Put the oil and red pepper flakes in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat for about 1 minute and heat until the oil is hot but not smoking. Sauté the chopped onion until soft, about 1 minute, then sauté the garlic for a few seconds, or just until the garlic begins to brown.
Add the ground meat, and use a wooden spoon to break it into pieces and brown it on all sides, about 3 to 4 minutes. Be careful not to over stir and break up the meat chunks. You want them in big chunks for maximum flavor. Add the sherry and stir. Add the tomatoes and cook, stirring occasionally, until the sauce begins to boil. Lower the flame to medium/low and simmer for about 45 minutes or until the meat is thoroughly cooked. Finish the sauce by adding the cream. Stir, reduce the heat to low, simmer for one more minute, and remove from the heat. Season with salt and pepper.
Alternate Ways to make Polenta
Easy Oven-Baked Soft Polenta
Traditionally you make polenta atop the stove, slowly drizzling the cornmeal into salted boiling water and stirring until you have a smooth, stiff mixture that will support your standing spoon.
A less labor-intensive method. Combine the cornmeal and the liquid, put it in the oven and forget about it for 50 minutes. Stir in one tablespoon of butter and return it to the oven for 10 to 20 minutes, depending on the thickness desired.
- 1 cup polenta
- 1 quart water
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Stir together the polenta, water & salt in a 2-quart baking dish, place in the oven. Bake 50 minutes. Remove from the oven, and stir in the butter. Use a fork or a spatula to stir the polenta well, and return to oven for 10 minutes. Remove from oven, and stir again. Carefully taste a little bit of the polenta; if the grains are not completely soft, return to the oven for 10 minutes.
Microwave Polenta (serves 4)
For polenta in a hurry, make it in the microwave. Use a large bowl and be very careful when handling it. Allow the steam escape before you stir, the mixture will be extremely hot.
- 3/4 Cup polenta
- 3/4 tsp salt
- 3 c water
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter
Combine the polenta, salt and water in a 3-quart microwave-safe bowl, and stir together. Cover the bowl with a plate, and place in the microwave. Microwave on high for 8 minutes. Remove from the microwave carefully, wearing oven mitts, the bowl will be very hot. Carefully remove the plate from the top, and allow the steam to escape. Stir in the butter, and mix well with a fork. Cover the bowl again with the plate and return to the microwave. Microwave on high for an additional three minutes. Again, remove from the microwave carefully, wearing oven mitts. Carefully remove the plate from the top, and allow the steam to escape. Stir the polenta, and return to the microwave for another three more minutes. Carefully remove from the microwave.
Just don't have the time to make Polenta?
Try Frieda's Organic Polenta
. It is available
in the supermarket (or online!) in premade tubes in several delicious
flavors. It is shelf stable until open, so you can keep a few tubes on hand for those days when time just doesn't allow for the homemade version! Great for slicing and baking/pan sautéing or just mash and heat to create a soft bed for your meat/fish or sauce. Press it into a sheet pan to create a base for polenta pizza! In doing our research for this article we tried this and we very surprised how delicious it was.