Polenta is Italian for cornmeal mush. Yup, ask any southerner and they’ll tell you that grits is the same as polenta, only not cooked as long. It’s poor people’s food, and really tasty at that!
Of course whatever is deemed “exotic” becomes gourmet, given enough hype. Lots of high-end restaurants serve polenta as a side, and make plenty of people happy with its delicious creaminess. Don’t get me wrong; I do not mean to slight polenta, its cousins or anyone who serves it. I love the stuff, I just find it amusing that such an inexpensive dish is so hyped by expensive chefs. To be fair, many great chefs are inspired by humble food and simply amp it up a bit with expensive ingredients. You can do that as well but one of my favorite ways to eat polenta is toasted with butter and some parmesan cheese. Simple, flavorful, delightful!
Polenta for eating the old-fashioned way – poured on a cutting board and allowed to cool in anticipation of being cut and toasted or grilled – is made of three ingredients: coarse cornmeal, water and salt. That’s it. It is the preparation that makes it unique. You need to stir it for at least 20 minutes, continuously. I know that sounds like a hardship but I find the end result makes it all worthwhile.
I learned how to prepare it in this fashion by reading about polenta in Marcella Hazan’s The Classic Italian Cookbook, and have never erred by following her method. You can cook it for a lesser amount of time if you simply want to serve it as a sticky, mashed potato sort of side dish (still add lots of butter and parmesan cheese) but I prefer this method.
Polenta with Parmesan and Butter
2 cups coarse cornmeal
6 cups of water
2 teaspoons salt
Bring the water to a bowl in a large pot or dutch oven and add the salt. Drizzle in the cornmeal in a thin stream, stirring constantly to ensure it become fully incorporated. Reduce the heat to medium and continue stirring for 20 minutes, the mixture will begin to resemble a gruel and then begin to thicken. Stir and fold the mixture, scrapping down the sides as you mix. The polenta is ready to be poured out on a cutting board when it pulls away from the sides of pot as you scrape and stir it. Turn off the heat and pour the polenta onto a clean cutting board. Use a spatula or knife dipped in cold water to spread the polenta evenly.
Allow it to cool completely, at least 6 hours. (I often make it at night and cover it with a clean dish cloth). To remove it from the board, cut a long piece of sewing thread and wrap the ends around each index finger and draw it taut. Press the thread down on the edge of the cutting board and slowly draw it under the polenta, cutting it from the board. You can then slice the cooled polenta into slices of any shape you desire or refrigerate it. I toasted it, cutting cross marks into it to allow the butter to seep into it and sprinkled it with parmesan, salt and pepper.
Recipes currently inspiring me: