Polenta is trendy, gluten-free, and versatile beyond just being 'cornmeal mush'


    Polenta bread.

    The Blade/Andy Morrison
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  • The last time I wrote something about polenta, a reader called and asked, "Isn't that just cornmeal mush?"

    Well, yes it is. But it sounds so much fancier when you call it polenta. And restaurants can certainly get away with charging a lot more for polenta than cornmeal mush. It doesn't matter what you do with it, cornmeal mush just isn't trendy.

    But polenta is. It's trendy, it's hearty — it's even gluten-free. But the best part about polenta is it is so incredibly versatile.

    Hungry for breakfast? Put hot polenta in a bowl, add milk and brown sugar or molasses, and you have a filling breakfast cereal, the corn version of oatmeal. Or ladle some out onto a hot skillet slicked with butter or bacon grease, flip them, and douse them in maple syrup for polenta pancakes.

    For dinner, you can serve it as a substitute for mashed potatoes, or use it as a base on which to put any number of savory sauces, including your favorite spaghetti sauce. Mix in some cheese — Parmesan, Fontina or Gorgonzola are most common — for extra rich goodness. Or put it in the bottom of a bowl and ladle chili on top.

    And it's great for baking, too. You can make polenta bread, which admittedly is not too different from cornbread, and even use it for traditional Italian cookies.

    Despite the name, polenta is really just cornmeal. Packages labeled "cornmeal" tend to be considerably cheaper than those labeled "polenta," and they are generally the same thing, though some people claim that polenta imported from Italy tastes better than cornmeal grown in the United States.

    Some Americans insist that true polenta only has a medium or coarse grain, but the definitive Italian cookbook, The Silver Spoon, disputes that claim. The coarse-grained polenta comes from the Lombardy and Piedmont regions of northwest Italy, while the northeast region of Veneto specializes in a fine-grained variety.

    Making polenta is easy, but making truly great polenta takes a little more work. Like so many things that take some effort, it is well worth the time.

    The easy way to make polenta is to boil some salted water, throw in the cornmeal, and stir it a few times while letting it boil for a few minutes. If you let it simmer for 20 minutes instead of boiling for less, you can be assured the raw taste will cook out.

    Polenta topped with sauteed mushrooms.
    Polenta topped with sauteed mushrooms.

    But that's the cornmeal mush way of making it. The polenta way is more like making risotto, though without the constant stirring. Boil the salted water, and add the cornmeal quite slowly while stirring. Have a pot of hot water boiling away nearby, and add a few tablespoons of it as soon as the polenta starts to stiffen. Then cook it on your lowest heat, stirring frequently and adding a bit of the boiling water anytime it starts to feel stiff. Because it is slowly absorbing the water, the polenta will be sublimely creamy and soft after 45 minutes or an hour.

    Made this way, the polenta is so robust everyone will think you used cream or butter or at least chicken stock. But it is actually a high-fiber, low-fat, and wonderfully inexpensive treat. It is one of the best of those many foods that were originally eaten by frugal peasants, only to gain wide acceptance across the social strata when the culinariscenti discovered how good it tastes.

    If you have any left over, you can take advantage of the fact that polenta stiffens as it gets colder. Pour the leftovers into a bowl or pan so it is about an inch or two thick. Refrigerate at least two hours or overnight and then cut the thickened polenta into wedges. Melt a half-tablespoon of butter in a skillet over medium-high heat and cook the wedges on one side until they start to turn crisp and brown. Flip them, and cook on the other side until they turn brown. When done, the wedges will be crisp on the outside and creamy smooth on the inside.

    Depending on how much you want to impress people, you can make pancakes out of polenta and call them polenta pancakes or just old-fashioned hoecakes, a dish so humble it was literally cooked on hoes over a fire. Simply make a batch of polenta, add enough milk to thin it into a batter you can pour, and cook them in a cast-iron skillet coated with butter or bacon grease. If you use bacon grease, of course you will want to serve the bacon you cooked on the side.

    Polenta bread.
    Polenta bread.

    Polenta bread is easy to make because it is a quick bread, which is a bread that does not rise and therefore needs no yeast. Simply mix the ingredients together, pour into a greased pan, and bake until fully baked and firm. The second hardest part is melting the butter to add to the other ingredients. The hardest part is waiting for it to be done while it's amazing aroma wafts tantalizingly throughout your house.

    The corn in polenta cookies gives them an extraordinary texture and taste, but I have to issue two words of warning. The first is that making these cookies according to the instructions, which includes using a pastry bag to pipe them onto baking sheets, requires fairly strong hands. The dough is made with almost no liquid other than creamed butter, so it is quite stiff and can be reluctant to come out of the bag. You could, of course, just drop it on the baking sheets by spoonfuls, which would yield cookies that are not as attractive but just as delicious .

    The second warning is that if you make them with a coarse-grain polenta, the cookies will have a bit of a gritty texture. That is the way they are supposed to be, sort of like pecan sandies, but some taste-testers found it off-putting. If you don't want extra crunch in your cookies, use fine-grain polenta.

    What the heck, let's give you a third word of warning, too: Don't start eating the dough before you start piping it onto the baking sheet. This stuff is so insanely good, you could end up eating the whole batch yourself before you even begin to cook it.

    Contact Daniel Neman at: dneman@theblade.com or 419-724-6155.



    Basic Polenta

    3¾ cups water

    1¾ cups polenta or corn meal, see cook's note

    1-2 tablespoons butter, optional

    ½-1 cup grated Parmesan, Fontina, Gorgonzola or other sharp-flavored cheese, optional, see cook's note

    Cook's note: Fine, medium or coarse grain polenta or corn meal can all be used, yielding different textures. Do not use pre-made polenta for this recipe. Do not add cheese if you are planning to eat with milk for a breakfast cereal or make polenta pancakes. Otherwise, the cheese helps immeasurably; but use Gorgonzola or other blue cheeses sparingly.

    Add a teaspoon or two of salt to the water and bring to a boil. Keep another pot of water boiling nearby.

    Slowy sprinkle polenta to the salted water, stirring constantly. Stir in a couple of tablespoons of the boiling water, and lower the temperature to a very low simmer. Stir frequently and add the boiling water, a tablespoon or two at a time, whenever the polenta starts to become stiff and dry. Cook until tender, about 45 minutes to an hour. Stir in the butter, if using, and the optional cheese.

    Serve by itself, with cold milk, tomato sauce, or sautéed mushrooms (recipe below). Pairs well with stews and braised meats. Press leftovers into a greased bowl or pan, refrigerate overnight, slice into wedges, and pan-fry in butter or bacon drippings.

    Yield: 4-6 servings

    Source: Adapted from The Silver Spoon


    Polenta with Mushrooms

    1 recipe basic polenta, above

    1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

    1 pound button mushrooms, sliced

    4 ounces cremini mushrooms, sliced

    ¼ cup dry red wine

    1 tablespoon minced garlic

    ¼ cup chopped parsley

    Make basic polenta recipe using cheese and butter.

    While it cooks, heat butter or olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add button and cremini mushrooms, and season liberally with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender and have released all their liquid, 10-15 minutes.

    Add the wine and let it bubble away for 1 minute. Stir in garlic and parsley, and cook another 2-3 minutes.

    Portion out the polenta, and serve the mushroom mixture on top of it.

    Yield: 4-6 servings

    Source: Adapted from How to Cook Everything: The Basics, by Mark Bittman


    Polenta Pancakes

    1 basic recipe polenta, above, made without cheese

    ¼ cup buttermilk or milk

    2 tablespoons butter or bacon grease, divided

    Make basic polenta recipe, without adding cheese. Stir in buttermilk or milk until polenta can nearly be poured. Heat a large skillet (preferably cast iron) over medium-high heat; melt ½ tablespoon butter or pour in ½ tablespoon bacon grease. When butter stops foaming or grease is hot, ladle in polenta batter to form 6-inch pancakes. Cook until bottom is golden brown, 3-5 minutes. Flip and cook until bottom is golden brown, 2-3 minutes. Repeat with additional batches, using more butter or grease as needed. Serve warm with a pat of butter and honey or maple syrup.

    Yield: 8-10 pancakes


    Polenta Bread

    1½ cups flour

    ½ cup polenta or corn meal

    ½ tablespoon sugar

    ½ teaspoon salt

    1½ teaspoons baking powder

    1 teaspoon baking soda

    2 eggs, separated

    ¼ cup butter (½ stick), melted

    1½ cups buttermilk

    Preheat oven to 425°. Mix together flour, polenta, sugar, salt, baking powder, and baking soda. Set aside. Beat egg yolks, melted butter, and buttermilk and combine gently with dry ingredients. Beat egg whites to stiff peaks, and fold in. Pour into greased 8-inch square pan and bake 25-30 minutes, or until firm.

    Yield: 9 large pieces

    Source: Adapted from Four Sisters Inns Cookbook


    Italian Polenta Cookies

    1¾ cups all-purpose flour

    1 cup Italian polenta or yellow cornmeal

    ½ teaspoon salt

    1 cup (2 sticks) unsalted butter, softened

    2/3 cup sugar

    1 tablespoon lemon zest (1 lemon)

    1 large egg PLUS 1 large egg yolk

    1 teaspoon vanilla extract

    Cook's note: Martha Stewart, who wrote this recipe, recommends coarse-ground cornmeal or polenta for "an authentic texture." This texture will be a bit sandy. If you dislike that idea, use finer ground cornmeal or polenta.

    Preheat oven to 350°. Whisk together flour, polenta, and salt in a medium bowl; set aside. Put butter, sugar, and lemon zest in the bowl of an electric mixer fitted with the paddle attachment; beat on medium-high speed until pale and fluffy, about 2 minutes, scraping down the sides of the bowl as needed. Add egg and egg yolk, one at a time, beating after each addition to combine. Mix in vanilla. Gradually add flour mixture, and beat until just combined. Transfer batter to a pastry bag fitted with a ½-inch star tip.

    Pipe S shapes about 3 inches long and 1 inch wide, spaced 1½ inches apart on baking sheets lined with parchment. (If the dough is too stiff for you to pipe through the bag, simply drop the dough by spoonfuls on the prepared sheets and flatten with the bottom of a drinking glass you have greased with butter). Bake cookies until edges are golden, 15-18 minutes. Transfer cookies on parchment sheets to wire racks; let cool about 10 minutes. Remove cookies from parchment, and transfer to racks to cool completely.

    Yield: About 35-40 cookies

    Source: Martha Stewart Living