Corn Mush...Rediscovering A Classic

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Creamy. Grain. Nutritious. Mushy. Polenta.
If you haven't had it, then you must try it. It's a very tasty, incredibly cheap and easy side dish (or meal onto itself) that you can literally whip up in less than 20 minutes. My friend Jeff recently asked me a question about how to make polenta, and I thought it was a great topic for a blog, so here we go!

Polenta is one of the most ancient of foods us modern folk can eat. A direct link to our Roman ancestors, it was (and still is) a popular food that given its availability and low cost, is still often consumed today. It was originally known as "peasant food" or "porridge." Ancient Roman polenta also included ground chestnut flour which added a pleasant flavor. This polenta is still made today and can be found, but it's something you would have to order from Europe or a speciality store online. It is a dish that has transcended many cultures, and those cultures have added their own twist on this most classic of dishes.

Polenta is made of ground corn meal (or maize). When liquid is added to the maize and cooked over very low heat, the mixture thickens. The amount of liquid and cook time can make the polenta as thin or thick as you like it. This allows the cook to manipulate this same basic ingredient to accompany appropriately the rest of the meal. For example, if a large roast is being served also, a creamier polenta will be prepared. Conversely, if a stew is to be served, the polenta can be made thicker and then formed into a "bread bowl" of sorts to cleverly hold the stew.

But still the most common way polenta is served is creamy. To make creamy polenta, you first have to buy the polenta! You can find it sold as "polenta" or as "course corn grain" or "cornmeal." The package will guide you on proportion directions, but frankly you just need to eyeball it. Polenta is very forgiving in that you can always add more liquid or more polenta to get it the consistency you want it.

To start a basic polenta, put in equal parts polenta meal to liquid in a large pot. Add a pinch of salt when you add the liquid as well. Then bring the mixture up to a boil. Once at a boil, decrease the heat down to medium low immediately, and stir often until the grains get creamy and you reach the consistency you're looking for.

I like using a whisk at first because it really incorporates the polenta into the liquid well. Then when the mixture starts to thicken, I switch up to a good wooden spoon. You'll find the mixture will thicken pretty quickly so plan to stay right next to it from that point on. You must be very careful when working with polenta. Once it reaches the thick stage, it starts to bubble violently. This is no joke and not to be taken lightly...the polenta will literally jump up in the air and into your face if you're not careful so do not hold your face over it to take a smell. EVER. And polenta is beyond scalding and will hurt. A lot.

Just make sure to keep stirring and put a lid on that pot if you have to leave it for a second.

At this point, your polenta is done! Add some butter and mix it in and you're ready to serve! As I mentioned, a wonderful way to serve polenta is as a base for stew, as pictured here:
You'd want a very heavy, meaty stew like a goulash or chili or nice and thick bolognese sauce. Something thinner wouldn't work as it would just dissolve into the polenta. This is a wonderful thing because the polenta will be surprisingly sturdy while also absorbing the stew's liquid. So every bite is full of flavor.

You can also grill polenta. If you make extra polenta, take out a portion for leftovers. Immediately at the soft stage when you're ready to serve, take out a portion of the polenta and pour it into a glass dish or onto a baking dish. Spread it out as thickly or thinly as you like it. Then place it in the fridge to cool and set! When you're ready to grill it, cut out squares and brush them on both sides with olive or canola oil and grill them up! This can be done a day or even two in advance.

You can also fry polenta. Set the polenta like above and cut out the squares. Heat some oil in a pan and fry both sides until golden brown. Make sure the polenta is cold when you do it so it doesn't break in the pan. To make your life even easier, they sell polenta already cooked and formed into a tube. All you have to do is cut out your desired thickness, then go ahead and fry or grill as you like it.

You can also use you day-old cooked polenta and make a country casserole, Romanian style. Romanians use polenta in their daily cuisine. It's one of those dishes that has stayed with their culture since the Romans occupied that area thousands of years ago. Romanians serve their polenta (called "mamaliga") with garlic sauce, chunks of feta cheese and as a side dish to fried pork and sausages. They use the leftovers of these ingredients to make a casserole, layering pieces of day-old mamaliga, onions, sausage or pork slices and topped with feta cheese which is then baked until hot and the cheese melts. It is served drizzled with raw garlic sauce or a dollop of cold sour cream. It is delicious.
You can also flavor your polenta using greens. One of my personal favorite polenta dishes is to stir in arugula leaves (whole, not chopped) and heaps of freshly grated Parmesano-Reggiano. It is creamy, a little salty, a little bitter and extremely tasty. You can also do a spinach and feta cheese combination and serve it as an accompaniment to lamb chops or yogurt-marinated grilled chicken for a Greek twist.
Instead of water, try making polenta with stock. Any stock will do (chicken, vegetable, beef) and it will add an even deeper flavor. A great dish my kids like is cornmeal made with chicken stock and cheddar cheese mixed in. You can add some bacon pieces sprinkled on top for a different take on brunch! Even top it with some sunny-side fried eggs for a southern-style breakfast like grits!
Your options are quite literally endless. It's a great low-calorie, low fat dish that's perfect if you're also watching your weight. And it's cheap if you're watching your budget.
Don't be intimidated. Pick up some polenta and try it today!

1 comment:

Andrew said...

An a-maize-ingly informative blog. I love it!