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Tuesday, May 22, 2012

My First Polenta

Despite my penchant for Italian cuisine, I have never made polenta before.

Crazy, right?

So, as usual when trying something for the first time, I looked at a whole bunch of recipes, and read up on some different techniques.

For the most part, everyone agrees that polenta from scratch is time-consuming and can be tedious.

After having tried it myself, I concur.

At its simplest, polenta is literally just corn meal, salt and water.  It can be tricky to cook however, as the corn meal needs to be continually mixed around in order to fully incorporate all the moisture it can.

But that's it really.

Some recipes called for a ton of ingredients, some only a few.  Some people suggested baking it after boiling, others not so much.  Many involved adding more liquid to make "soft" polenta, others suggested dry polenta which could be fried or even grilled afterwards!  A few used cream or milk, and many suggested garlic and onion.

There were also a surprising number of recipes which involved tomato sauce.  I think I'll try that some time.  It sounds delicious.

So... for my first time, I wanted to follow the 'basic' recipe very closely, but I also did not want just 'plain' (unflavoured) polenta.  So I chose to add a few root veggies, and some corn and some cumin.  A particularly good-looking recipe was one from chef Michael Smith whom I respect quite a bit.  He's not the flashiest of chefs, and I don't love everything he makes, but for the most part he is very consistently good.  Plus I share his mindset of experimentation and playing with whatever you have on-hand.  Of course, his pantry is like 5 times bigger than mine, but still... it's a good rule to live by.

Anyway... this particular recipe of his called for a few things I disregarded in favour of my aforementioned desire to keep this close to a 'basic' polenta, but one thing which seemed cool was the addition of corn.

So, this is a simple polenta with a little bit of garlic and onion, with corn kernels.

Start, as always, by finely chopping your veggies.  I used a small amount of white onion, a few cloves of garlic, and a tiny shallot just for an extra nudge.

Finely chopped, or minced even, saute these in a generous glug of olive oil for about 5 to 10 minutes.

I ground up some cumin seeds and some white peppercorns for flavour, and added that as well.

While that was simmering, I put on the water to boil.

I read some varying accounts of what the ratio of water to corn meal should be, some saying 3:1, some 4:1.  Plus there was the stipulation that you could opt for more liquid to make the end result 'softer'.  I believe a few people even referred to this as 'polenta mush'.  Not sure that's the technical term.

Anyway, because I am a texture freak, and I really did NOT want there to be any graininess or coarseness to the polenta, I opted for a generous 5:1 ratio.  So, 5 cups of water to 1 cup of corn meal.

Now this is the tricky part.

With a large whisk, slowly and gradually, stir in a steady stream of corn meal to your boiling water.

Before too long, this will begin thickening substantially.  At this point switch to a wooden spoon, and keep stirring.

Once it begins thickening, you can mix in all the sauteed veggies and oil.  This will become very well blended over the next 30 minutes of stirring.

The trick that I learned about this stage (the 20-40 minute stage unilaterally decreed as the 'tedious' part of making polenta) is that it is not about mixing the corn meal, but about constantly moving the meal granules about in order to expose them to as much moisture as possible.  So, bear that in mind when 'stirring'.  Try to move the corn meal around a lot, and to continually bring the stuff at the bottom up to the top and back.

The corn meal will literally soften and expand when it absorbs moisture.  So the trick to getting soft polenta with no graininess, is to stir, stir, stir.  Well after your mixture looks totally blended, keep stirring in order to keep exposing the meal to the moisture, giving it a good chance of absorbing every drop that's left.

In order to make sure I hit a good consistency, I just periodically sampled the mixture with a fork now and again.

I decided to try baking it for 15 minutes - as many recipes advised - so I greased up a loaf pan and set that aside.

When the polenta was ready (it was probably about 35 minutes on the stove), I stirred in some corn and some cheese.  Frozen corn and a hard sheep's milk cheese which I forget the name of.  :)

Most of the recipes (including the Michael Smith one which actually called for the frozen corn) said to mix these last ingredients in right at the last minute pretty much.  So in they went, and then I transferred the whole mix to my baking pan.

It looked very... interesting...


Into the oven for 15 - 20 minutes at 350°, and it came out looking golden and (relatively) crisp.

It came out of the pan very easily, and was sliced even more easily.

It was good.  And I'd consider my first attempt a success.

A few things though:

One, upon first tasting this, my first impression was to spread a bit of margarine on top.  Much like I would bread.  I guess that is no surprise.  But, it suggests that my next attempt (Polenta #2) will definitely substitute some milk, cream, or even butter for all that water. The 'plain' polenta was very much just that.  Some extra fat in there would not go amiss... even just more vegetable or olive oil would work.

Two, the corn was good.  But the contrast between the relatively savoury polenta base and the sweet and juicy corn kernels was quite sharp.  I think I would do corn again, but perhaps add a touch of sugar in the mix to make the whole thing a bit sweeter.  Any kind of sugar would work, including fruit.  So that's an idea.

I definitely would try making a more 'Italian' kind of polenta in the future, with the addition of some tomato sauce and maybe a pepper or something.

The bottom line, however, and something which did surprise me, is that polenta is wholly VERSATILE.  I believe you could make a polenta to go with almost anything, with the right customization.

And the notion of 'grilling' a nice spicy polenta is definitely intriguing.  I think a slice of nicely grilled, crispy polenta would serve as a positively excellent bed for anything from grilled vegetables to a nicely barbecued flank steak or something.  Grilled asparagus with a drizzle of aioli overtop, grilled fish with butter, or a steak with a creamy pepper or blue cheese topping.  The possibilities are endless.

Definitely opened up a whole lot of new opportunities for me.  And this stuff is so cheap, and despite taking a bit of time, is dead simple to make.