Making Creamy Polenta: Lessons Learned

One of the dishes we learned in our grains cooking class this week was Polenta. As “research”, I ordered the Creamy Mascarpone Polenta at Ozzie’s, Friday night. It was delicious, and makes me want to try making something similar such as Mario Batali’s Polenta con Mascarpone recipe.

Polenta is made of ground corn. At the market you may be able to find two types of polenta: fine/quick-cooking polenta and coarse polenta. The quick-cooking Polenta is much finer, and looks more like cornmeal. Coarse polenta will take much longer to cook, and is similar in texture to American “grits”.

Coarse Polenta (on left) and Quick-cooking Polenta (on right and in package)

Actually, grits and polenta are pretty much the same thing, although the preparations can be slightly different. I grew up eating grits, and they were always white grits, topped with butter, sometimes cheddar cheese, salt, and pepper. My Mema was the Queen grits cooker in our family, and she cooked Quaker Old-Fashioned grits. Buying instant or quick grits was a big “no-no” at our house.

Italian style Polenta is typically yellow and can be served soft or allowed to firm, and then grilled or fried. The polenta we made in class was a soft creamy variation. It was made with quick-cooking polenta grains, and could easily be made from start to finish in less than 15 minutes. The ratio of liquid to grain for this polenta is 4:1. This is another grain dish which is best served immediately. We used A LOT of half and half to make this dish. The result is obviously very creamy and decadent.

Since this is a quick cooking dish, you will want to have whatever else you are serving with the polenta pretty close to being ready before you begin. We are learning in class, that chefs have to always be thinking about timing…and so should good home cooks. The creamy polenta will not be very good if it sits around for a while after it has been cooked. Be sure the other components of your meal are within a few minutes of being done (and don’t need a lot of hands-on attention) before you add the quick-cooking polenta to the hot liquid.

A note on equipment: When making polenta you want to use a stiff whisk. This is different from a softer whisk, and when you push on the whisk it does not “give” very much at all. The whisks we used in class also have a part in the center which is slightly longer, allowing you to really get to the edges of the pot, so you don’t end up with parts of your polenta (or roux, or anything else) getting scorched. If you don’t have a stiff whisk yet, that is okay…neither do I. Just really try to get in all the edges of your pan.

Professional Wood-Handled Whisk, 8″ 

For quick cooking polenta, you will need the following ingredients:

  • 2 cups half and half, plus more to loosen, if needed (You could use water and/or stock here, but the result will be less creamy)
  • 1/2 cup quick-cooking polenta
  • Salt
  • Butter, to taste
  • 1/2 cup parmesan, or more, to taste

We started by heating the half and half to boil in a small pot. Just as it starts to boil, use a stiff whisk and gradually add in your polenta while whisking vigorously. Once you have added all the polenta, continue to whisk the mixture, and cook over high heat for about a minute. The mixture will really thicken very quickly. If it gets too dry, don’t be afraid to pull it off the heat and add in a little liquid (half and half, stock, or water), to get it back to a creamy texture. After the polenta is thick and creamy (this should take only a few minutes), remove from heat and add 1-2 tbsp. of butter, parmesan, and a little more liquid if needed to get to the right consistency. After you have added the parmesan, taste for salt, and add as needed. Top with additional grating of parmesan if desired. Serve it immediately.

The consistency of the polenta we made in class was pretty thick- like mashed potato consistency. This is a little thicker than I am used to, and my goal when making it at home was to get something with a similar flavor but a slightly creamier texture. Unfortunately, I did not succeed at this, at all. I made my polenta at home as described above, but substituted 1 1/2 cups milk and 1/2 cup half and half for the 2 cups of half and half. I also added some chopped fresh thyme to the finished polenta.

First, I brought my milk/ half and half mixture to a boil.

Next, I added the polenta, and whisked constantly. Things were still going well at this point, and after a minute or two, it looked like this:

This is the point at which, I should have pulled the polenta off the stove. Unfortunately, I let it go a little longer and it thickened up very fast. I did add some more milk to the polenta off the heat, but at this point, it was just too thick. It tasted good, but the texture was more solid, than creamy, and was definitely not what I was aiming for. Oh, well. Live and learn. I will try it again next time, and pull it off the stove just BEFORE I think it is done.

I served my polenta with Spinach Fontina Chicken Meatballs (from Whole Foods), and a Roasted Garlic Bechamel sauce. I garnished it with thick ribbons of parmesan and more fresh thyme.

While my polenta was not a total success, I still want to make it again. I decided to consult my cookbook collection again to see what variations on polenta cookery I could find.

  • In Alice Water’s cookbook The Art of Simple Food, she uses a 4:1 ratio, but uses the coarser slow-cooking polenta. She also cooks the polenta in water, bringing the water to a boil, then slowly adding the polenta and stirring, “constantly until the polenta is suspended in the water and no longer settles to the bottom of the pot. ” She then cooks the polenta for an hour, stirring occasionally, keeping it barely simmering. More liquid is added if the polenta gets too thick, or alternatively, liquid is allowed to cook-off if the polenta gets too thin. The dish is finished with butter or olive oil and topped with parmesan. One of many variations she suggests is sautéing a cup of corn kernels and adding to the cooked polenta. (p.94-95)
  • In her book Unplugged Kitchen, Viana La Place emphatically suggests only using unrefined organic stone-ground cornmeal. “Do not use degerminated cornmeal, the kind sold in supermarkets,” she states.” It is just a shadow of it’s former self.” She suggests cooking the polenta and letting it cool completely in a pan. She then brushes slices of the cooled firmed polenta with olive oil and grills them briefly, served with a refreshing tomato-mint salad. (p.279)
  • Canadien food writer Bonnie Stern outlines  a recipe for Roasted Butternut Polenta in her book, Friday Night Dinners. She combines roasted Butternut Squash with quick-cooked polenta, olive oil or butter, thyme, and pepper. Then she pours the polenta into a pan and chills until firm, later cutting it into squares, brushing with more oil, and baking until browned. (p.22)
  • The most interesting version of polenta I found was a one dish meal with cabbage and pork from, The Art of Eating Cookbook by Edward Behr. In this dish called Puccia, the meat and vegetables are simmered in salted water, to which polenta is added. The mixture is cooked over low heat for at least an hour, and finished with strong cheese, salt, and pepper. (p.71)

I thought I would include a couple videos, if you would like to see Polenta being cooked before trying it out. The first is Giada De Laurentis, making quick-cooking polenta:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/polenta/6048.html

The second is a video of Alton Brown, making a slower-cooking version:

http://www.foodnetwork.com/videos/altons-savory-polenta-recipe/82425.html

Both recipes are available on www.foodnetwork.com.

Happy Cooking,

Melissa

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