Polenta...pure and simple

Polenta…pure and simple

The glories of golden polenta which we associate with Italian cooking today have a long history that preceded its arrival in Europe by the Spaniards in the 15th century.  Corn and its cultivation originated in Mesoamerica and was a staple in the local diets. The Aztecs and Mayans developed a process called nixtamalization, soaking maize (corn) kernels in water with slaked lime that transformed bound niacin into free niacin which was an essential nutrient otherwise missing in local diets.  Nixtamal  is still widely use in the Americas today. The processed corn kernels, also known as posole, are used in soups and stews or ground into meal known as Masa Harina that is then used to make what is now familiar the world over as corn tortillas, tortilla chips,  and tamales.

On its arrival in the old world corn was quickly embraced as the crop of choice all over southern Europe and became the staple food for farmers and landowners alike, but sadly the Spaniards overlooked the ancient’s ingenious processing innovation and malnutrition set in for those heavily dependent on corn as their main food source.

History aside, polenta still reigns as the nostalgic homey comfort food relished by Italians all over the northern and central provinces to this day.  Its golden color, intoxicating aroma, and creamy texture conjure up warm animated gatherings around a country table laden with the bounty of the surroundings for all to enjoy.

Buying Polenta: A stone ground organic corn meal is your best option. Grind varies greatly from course to very fine. Choosing a grind is all about preference. The courser the grind the longer the cooking time and the texture will have a rustic appearance and feel.  A fine grind will produce a very smooth and creamy texture. The flavor is in the cooking! Avoid the instant polenta if at all possible. It lacks most of the qualities that make polenta …polenta!

Cooking polenta: The recipe is essentially three ingredients, but how you cook them makes all the difference. Be prepared to commit to some time in front of the stove, as the polenta must be whisked frequently and cooking time can be lengthy; up to several hours in most cases. There is no such thing as a 30 minute polenta! Believe me, the time invested is worth all the effort!

I have outlined two cooking procedures; the traditional method and the double boiler method; devised by Lynne Rossetto Kasper in her cookbook The Italian Country Table. I have used both methods with excellent results although I do lean towards the traditional method for a more nuanced flavor.  That being said the double boiler method is a much easier process and produces a wonderful smooth and creamy polenta.

Traditional method for cooking polenta: 

  • 1 part corn meal
  • 1 teaspoon wheat germ (optional)
  • 3-6 parts liquid (water, stock, milk) depending on the grind of the corn meal
  • 1teaspoon salt
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 

For finishing:

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • grated Parmegiano

Bring 3 ½ cups of the liquid you are using for every half cup of corn meal you intend to use to a full boil and add the corn meal and wheat germ (if using), pouring in a slow steady stream while whisking vigorously in a circular direction to incorporate the corn meal without lumps.  Immediately turn the heat down to a very low simmer. Stir in the olive oil and salt and continue to whisk every several minutes for the first half hour. If the liquid has reduced add 1 cup of additional cooking liquid at a time and whisk until the mixture returns to a simmer. Continue in this manner for the first hour and test the polenta for flavor and texture. The ideal texture will be a very smooth consistency with barely a trace of texture. I have found that the total cooking time will be closer to 2 hours, with almost continual whisking at the 1 ½ hour point to insure there are no lumps as the liquid reduces in the final stage of cooking. The polenta should be smooth and creamy and mound onto itself without spreading too quickly. For some applications you may want a very soft creamy texture to serve under a main dish, so use your own judgment in determining what texture is appropriate for your intended use.

Once you have determined the polenta is finished, remove it from the heat and continue to whisk for several minutes to ensure that no lumps have formed.  Taste for seasoning and add salt if needed.

The polenta is then ready to serve drizzled with finishing olive oil, a shower of freshly ground black pepper, and grated Parmegiono scattered over the top.

You can store the polenta, covered, in the refrigerator for several days. To reheat, place in a pan and add some liquid and warm over medium low heat, whisking as it warms to restore its smooth creamy texture.

You can also spread the polenta out in a sheet pan, evening out the surface, cover, and refrigerate for several hours before cutting it into wedges for frying or grilling. Brush wedges with olive oil so that the polenta won’t stick to the frying pan (non stick is recommended) or grill. The grill should be very hot to quickly sear the polenta so it doesn’t stick to the grill!

Double boiler method for cooking polenta:

  • 1 part corn meal
  • 1 teaspoon wheat germ (optional)
  • 3 parts liquid (water, stock, milk)
  • salt to taste

For finishing: 

  • extra virgin olive oil
  • freshly ground black pepper
  • grated Parmegiano

Place water in pan large enough to accommodate a stainless steel bowl set on top, and bring the water to a boil. Place the polenta cooking liquid in a saucepan and bring to a boil and pour into the stainless bowl set over the boiling water. Slowly add the corn meal and wheat germ (if using) in a slow steady stream while vigorously whisking the cooking liquid in a circular motion until all the corn meal is whisked into the liquid and no lumps have formed.. Add salt and whisk in. Cover the bowl with aluminum foil and seal all around the edges. Cook for 1 ½ hours,  stirring several times within the first 20 minutes, resealing the foil between each stirring. Be sure to check the boiling water below the cooking polenta and replace water as needed. 

Check the polenta for doneness after 1 ½ hours and if more cooking time is needed add more cooking liquid, whisk, and reseal the foil.

Once finished, remove from the heat and allow the polenta to rest for several minutes and then gently whisk. The polenta is now ready to serve drizzled with finishing olive oil, freshly ground black pepper, and grated Parmegiano.

The polenta can also be refrigerated and reheated, or cut into wedges for frying or grilling, as described in the previous recipe above.
 

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