Polenta is truly “peasant” food — but I love peasant food; most people do. When someone describes their favourite “comfort food,” it almost universally some peasant food. So why disparage it with such moniker? Well, the easiest answer would be to admit that I like to confront truths with bluntness. Having said that, there is nothing wrong with peasant food … and peasant food doesn’t mean bad food. What it describes is an affordable cuisine that nourishes and fills the voids in both heart and stomach. Polenta is all that … and more.
A typically Northern Italian dish that is older than even the introduction of corn to Europe, original polenta was by all accounts an Italian porridge … but it evolved in to a classic dish that, when done well, will separate a 5-star restaurant from a mediocre one. Best of all, with the growth in awareness around the benefits of a gluten-free (or reduced gluten) diet, polenta is making a comeback … which makes me very happy.
So what’s the secret to good or even great polenta? Two things: great cornmeal and lots of patience. Technically you can cook polenta in less time than it takes to cook rice — but to make great polenta, takes time. It’s not hard — it’s actually stupidly easy — but it takes time. The secret is to take a coarse ground cornmeal, something gritty (which is why stoneground is best) such that you can even see the granules after the cooking (like in the picture above). However — and here’s the goal — the granules you can see, you shouldn’t be able to taste: there should be no coarseness in the mouth. How do you achieve this? Two ways. First, I use some milk in the process which will help break the grains down a bit more and help release the essentials starches which, like in a good risotto, is where the creaminess comes from … and which adds some bonus creaminess and flavour as well. And secondly, a long slow cooking allows the polenta to fully breakdown. What you get are all those gorgeous whole grain starches running among the most tender granules … but with all the flavour of a whole corn grain. To achieve this long slow cooking process, I borrowed a technique I learned while studying how to cook Indian basmati rice and that is to use a pair of tongs to elevate the pan away from direct heat and allow a slower cooking process without burning. Alternatively, a wok ring under the pot will work as well.
Really, after a long slow cooking like this, the starches will naturally turn any polenta into a creamy bit of gorgeousness … but if you want some decadence, as I do, end it with a cup of cream and some freshly ground parmigiano-reggiano. I’ll grant you, this last two flourishes move it out of the realm of true peasant food, but I couldn’t resist.
Serve this with your favourite Italian entrée like veal scallopini or osso buco … and enjoy!
Prep time: 0
Cook time: 90 minutes
Total time: 90 minutes
- 2¼ cups (530mL) … or 12oz (330g), medium coarse cornmeal
→ preferably organic stone-ground
- 4 cups water
- 2 cups milk
- 1 teaspoon salt
- 1 cup whipping cream
- 2 ounces (approx. 1 cup) freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano
- Water to boil and add the salt.
Meanwhile, heat the milk to ‘hot’ in a microwave (or another small pot).Stirring the water quickly, gradually whisk in the polenta until well incorporated.
It will thicken up and suck up all the water.
Stir in the milk, whisking to avoid any lumps.
- Place either a wok ring or a pair of bbq tongs on a small burner and set it to low.
Put the lid on the polenta and heat on low for 90 minutes, stirring every 15 minutes or so to prevent sticking and burning. At the end, the polenta should be thick, vaguely gelantinous, like porridge, and be the consistency of thick mashed potatoes. In other words, you shouldn’t be able to feel the cornmeal granules in your mouth.
Now for the decadence, stir in the freshly grated Parmesan …… then the cream.Taste for salt. Polenta will be starchy and thick like in the picture below.
You can either keep it in this state until ready — or serve immediately, but either way, serve it warm because once it starts to cool, it will ball up and lose that the amazing to-die-for texture.