Us brits seem to approach polenta with considerable trepidation – a little uncertain of its outcome, often resulting in a love-hate relationship. Although a staple for our fellow Europeans, its temperamental nature and sometimes bland flavour cause many to overlook its simplistic beauty.
Known to originate from the peasants’ diet of northern Italy, this rich yellow cornmeal is subtlety sweet and decadently creamy when cooked properly – a truly comforting alternative to pasta, rice or potatoes.
So throw you apprehensions aside and follow GrowEatGather’s guide to making the perfect polenta!
Select the right meal
The lighter cornmeal is often milder in flavour and therefore is best matched with more delicate
ingredients such as sweet seafood and flakey fish.
Alternatively, vivid yellow polenta is a little more robust and is traditionally used alongside rich
meaty dishes such as ragu. This is also the better cornmeal to carry salty flavours when adding
cheese such as parmesan.
Polenta is also great for adding textural interest to a dish – finer varieties result in a much softer,
thinner polenta making it the perfect base for meat. Grainier cornmeals however, are much more
robust and are therefore great for adding bite.
Don’t just cook with water
The basic way to cook polenta is by simply adding water. Although this is foolproof method, it
does nothing on the flavour front.
With roots in the north of Italy, where dairy ingredients are staple, water is often replaced for milk and cream to add decadence and sustenance to polenta. Other approaches include using stock although this should be approached with caution. Stock can often be too harsh in flavour,
counteracting the wholesome flavours of polenta itself.
A 50-50 blend of both milk and water is often favoured to achieve body and richness without
overpowering the delicately sweet, rustic flavours of the cornmeal.
Achieving the perfect consistency
Achieving the desired consistency of polenta is sometimes a little tricky. Depending on whether
you’re looking for a ‘soft’ or slightly firmer polenta that can be subsequently chilled and fried, will depend on the liquid ratios.
Softer polenta is best made with a ratio of one part meal to five parts liquid. Alternatively, to
achieve a polenta that will set firm, look to a ratio of 1:3 – this will give you the ability to slice and
fry easily once the polenta has cooled and set.
To stir or not to stir
You will read many recipes concerning polenta that all have varying opinions on when and for how long to stir polenta. As such a contentious issue, it becomes something of personal preference – your preferred consistency and texture and your patience when it comes to slaving over the hob!
Taking many techniques into question, the most ‘cook’ friendly follows a couple of simple
1. Add the polenta to the liquid slowly, whisking continuously and quite vigorously to avoid lumps
2. Allow the meal to thicken and fully absorb the cooking liquor before lowering the heat to avoid a sloppy end result
3. Give your polenta a stir every 5 minutes for 60 seconds to ensure it doesn’t stick.
Add extra flavour
When adding additional ingredients to polenta be conscious not to overwhelm the subtle flavours of the cornmeal. Bay leaves add great subtlety but run the risk of breaking up in the polenta through cooking and stirring making them difficult to remove.
Alternatively, season simply with a salty parmesan and finish off with a knob of butter – it simply
can’t be beaten!
Words by Helen Upshall