The truth about polenta

What’s so good about polenta? In no particular order: it’s inexpensive, easy to cook, versatile, tastes good, and doesn’t sit in your stomach like a rock the way so many other foods do. Also, it’s comforting not just when it’s freshly cooked and still has that gruel-like consistency, but also when you let it cool and then steam, fry, grill, or broil it with whatever vegetables and fruits and sauces you like. When it’s good, polenta transports you to a home where things are almost simple, you can get by without cruelty, and people’s lives complement each other without needless friction. It’s a dream, but nonetheless enjoyable and possibly worth looking for.

Finally, polenta reminds me of the millet gruel my grandmother used to cook when I was little. It was a summer dish, usually served with fruit, and one of the few things that remained edible even after she was done with it. When she made this, she was usually in a good mood, unless she overcooked it, which meant it burnt and stuck to the pot, and it took lots of work to clean up. When she felt serene, she didn’t want to talk, didn’t bother me, didn’t make me go on a boring walk with her, but spent the afternoon looking at her magazines and leaving me alone. Just what I wanted.

In North American grocery stores, pre-cooked polenta in plastic casings that make it look like a fat yellow sausage has been available for many years. It is usually bland, but can acquire a kind of burned-rubber taste that goes well with the dull, mealy texture. Sometimes, these polenta products are flavored with basil, specks of “sundried” tomato, pistachios, or other things. Those add some visual appeal, but never any flavor. The only flavor in these polenta products apart from the residual plastic taste is salt. Don’t waste your money on them. The plastic can’t be recycled, so it hangs around your trash can and then piles up in the landfill.

Dry cornmeal—which is what polenta is—can be bought in many of the same places that will sell you these lame polenta rolls. Several food companies produce it in North America, and you also find it imported from Italy. At least one type of polenta by a U.S. supplier always turns out gritty and never quite sticks together, unless you cook it for a very long time and use a lot of water. You can get what’s said to be instant polenta, which is supposedly ready in a few minutes. It’s edible at that point, but not as good as when you cook it a little longer. So there’s no real advantage to purchasing the instant versions.

Standard polenta, every cookbook tells you, has to be prepared in boiling, salted water. You pour it in slowly and stir, so it doesn’t clump. Then you keep watching and stirring it until you’re happy with it. The part about the boiling water, sure, that’s true. Stirring for an eternity, like the half hour or whatever the experts insist on, no, that’s totally unnecessary. Stir it for a few minutes, cover it and let it sit over low heat, then maybe add some broth or water to be absorbed, stir it again, and so forth. You can do other kitchen work while you cook polenta. Or, read. Or do nothing. When polenta gets hot, it likes to spit little flecks of itself onto your arms and hands. You might want to stir it with a long-handled tool.

After about twenty minutes or so, the polenta has absorbed all the liquid and then some, and it has a pleasant, slightly foamy, resilient, gruel texture. You can serve it as a side dish with whatever vegetables or salad you’ve prepared. You can also pour it into a container to stand and cool before you do more with it.

Or, do this: When you like the state of the polenta and before it’s quite ready to either cool off or be consumed, you toss in the cherries, blueberries, soaked raisins, chocolate chips, thin-sliced leeks, diced Brussels sprouts, olives, capers, roasted peppers, grated cheese, small-cut greens, herbs, and additional seasonings of your preference, and give it all a good stir. Then you let the mixture cook over low heat for about five to ten more minutes. A couple of days ago, I made cherry polenta this way.

Homemade cherry polenta

The overnight-cooled block of cherry polenta before it was cut up into sections to be fried.

I removed the pits from the cherries while the polenta was cooking, and threw them in when it was ready. I added cinnamon and honey for flavor and depth. I poured the mix into a flat glass bowl to cool. The following day, I cut it into wedges, which I fried with a little butter and cinnamon, and served with a cold mix of raspberries, blackberries, and blueberries, seasoned with a little mango chutney.

When you let the polenta cool, it’s best to do it at room temperature and without a lid over it. In the refrigerator, the texture may turn sort of brittle and any flavor can fade away. And, if you put a lid over it, evaporating liquid will gather on that and drip back onto the polenta, where you don’t really want it.

Your additions should remain mostly intact even while their flavor pervades the polenta. Thus, raspberries are probably not good to use, but little chunks of pineapple, cherries, or blueberries, sure. Their juice infuses the polenta. If you add vegetables, keep the pieces or slices very small, because the dish will be more flavorful that way, and it will remain more manageable. Also, you need to watch the proportions. If you add too much fruit or vegetable matter, the cooling polenta won’t hold together nicely and will be a pain to cut, fry or otherwise reheat, and serve. Your polenta mix should probably not have more than about one fifth to a quarter of whatever foods that are not boiled cornmeal. And, be careful with the salt, especially when you make a savory polenta. Saltiness tends to become more intense as the polenta cools and is reheated, something you will not always want.

You can add cream or yogurt to fruity polenta right at the end, if you want it to have a very rich texture and flavors. If you do that, the polenta should have cooked at the lowest heat for a while, or else the cream or yogurt will simply vanish in it and leave barely a trace, but will make it harder to clean up the cooking pot. Similarly, if you add grated cheese to polenta with vegetables, do it when just before you let it cool.

Ideally, whatever you add to polenta should harmonize with it. Let it be simple. Clean flavors, not more than one or two different things. Later, if you reheat and serve the polenta with other foods, you can expand a little. But its simplicity is why polenta remains comforting. I know people cook it with expensive cheeses and other high-grade additions, and one commercial product is pre-flavored with truffles. To me, that strays too much from polenta’s origins in the plain kitchens of Italian cucina povera, and they add calories which most people won’t need.

You can let a thin film of polenta cool on a baking sheet, or slice your polenta loaf or other shape that way. Then you can use those polenta layers as the strata in lasagna-style dishes. Those, too, are best when you keep them simple. Portobello and other mushrooms together with spinach can work well in this. The mushroom juice can soak into the polenta, which could make for great flavor, or, if it’s too much, cause it to fall apart. You just have to experiment.

Another thing that’s satisfying about polenta: when it’s well-cooked, it comes cleanly off the sides of the pot, and washing the dish and the utensils is a minor chore. Some people love washing dishes and other cleaning tasks, but for those of us who want to minimize them, polenta is perfect.

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