I know that there are plenty of you out there who are as I previously was with Polenta. You started off curious so tried it in various restaurants and found yourself underwhelmed. It was allright, but you couldn’t see what the fuss was about.
Not types to give up, and armed with the opinion that Italians know about food, so it would be worth giving it another chance, you have a go at cooking it at home. Armed with an authentic Italian recipe from a reliable source you boil, and stir, and stir, and cool, and cut and reheat with a sauce………and still find yourself unexcited.
So you abandon Polenta for a number of years…..
…….then when you have forgotten all about it you are served in a restaurant to accompany the meat, a golden cake lightly browned and crisped on the edges and creamy in the centre. Filled with tiny strips of fried bacon and diced vegetables, flavoured with garlic and chicken stock. It is absolutely delicious. It takes you some time to realise that the main ingredient is the polenta that you have up to now been unimpressed by.
A re-evaluation is obviously in order. This is where the path to loving Polenta starts, let me lead you through my trials to success and enjoyment.
Firstly the Polenta itself. I read somewhere that it is only good during the first six months after it is milled. I have tried fresh and It does have a slightly more corn flavour, but not so much that it makes that much difference. Having said that any dried goods – beans, lentils, quinoa, rice, flour, and polenta should not be kept for more than a couple of years and preferably used within a year. These are products where the use by dates should be taken note of, you won’t get food poisoning but the grains lose their ability to reconstitute and stay dry and hard and of course the flavour of them slowly fades.
Cooking liquid. I have read debates as to whether water or milk are the best and most authentic cooking liquids, but I am not impressed with either. Let’s face it, polenta is a pretty bland grain, and so any extra flavour that can be added should be. I like to cook the polenta in a light stock, either chicken, veal, or if you are vegetarian, a vegetable stock.
Stirring. Every recipe I have come across, and the instructions on the polenta packet, tell you to bring the liquid to the boil, whisk in the polenta, stir until boiling again and then keep stirring for forty minutes with the heat turned low. Well, I haven’t got the time or patience to stand around stirring for forty minutes and I suspect neither do Italians or you. I find that stirring from time to time during the first ten minutes will do, then turn off the heat, cover with a well fitting lid and leave it to continue cooking in its own steam for forty minutes. Alternatively once it is back boiling after adding the polenta, pour into a slow cooker and continue cooking on a low setting for half an hour, then turn of the cooker and leave the polenta to cook in the residual heat for another half hour.
BASIC RECIPE – for 8-10 servings
350 grams polenta
1.75-2 litres light stock
salt and freshly ground black pepper
If you want a very firm polenta for leaving to cool and form into a cake, use the smaller amount of stock, and if you want a softer puree consistency for eating immediately, then the larger amount of stock.
Put the stock in a thick based saucepan with half a teaspoon of salt and bring to the boil.
Pour in the polenta in a steady stream stirring continually. Turn down the heat and keep stirring as the polenta thickens, this should take about 10 minutes.
Either put a lid on the polenta and turn of the heat leaving the polenta to continue cooking in its own steam or transfer the polenta to a slow cooker on the lowest setting and leave to cook for 30 minutes before turning off the heat and giving it a stir.
Continue with your chosen recipe.
POLENTA AND VEGETABLE CAKE – Pictured above
I make this when I have a lot of people to feed as almost all can be prepared the day before, all that has to be done on the day is slicing the loaf and putting it onto a hot tray in the oven. Plus it is the vegetable and starch all in one.
It is great with something saucy like a stew. Last time I made it was to go with Pork Bourgignon – see previous post on Pigs Cheeks.
If you want to make a vegetarian version of this substitute nut pieces for the bacon and use olive oil for the frying
100 grams streaky bacon – cut into small dice
30 grams bacon fat – cut into small dice
1 clove garlic – finely chopped
1 small onion or half a large one – finely chopped
200 grams vegetables – cut into small dice – choose three or four from the following – carrots, parsnips, peppers, mushrooms, sweet peas, Florence fennel, broccoli, celeriac, butternut squash. Try to mix the colours to make it interesting.
Thick polenta as master recipe – cooked in vegetable stock if making the meatless version.
Heat a thick based frying pan and add the dice bacon fat. Cook on a low heat until it has rendered down and released its fat.
Add the bacon and cook for five minutes.
Add the onions and garlic, stir in and fry for a couple of minutes.
Add the diced vegetables and fry for about 10 minutes until the vegetables are about half cooked and have lost some of their moisture.
Add the vegetable and bacon mix to the polenta while both are still warm and gently mix the whole together. Season with plenty of freshly ground black pepper and check if it needs more salt.
Turn into a small loaf tin lined with cling film. Gently flatten to make sure that there are no pockets of air and smooth out the top. Fold the cling film over the top and put the loaf in the fridge to cool and firm up.
About 45 minutes before you need to serve the loaf, heat the oven to 180 centigrade. When the oven is hot, put in a shallow baking tray containing a couple of tablespoons of tasty dripping or olive oil.
Take the loaf out of the fridge and remove from tin. Peel off it’s cling film and cut into slabs about one and a half centimetres thick.
Put onto the now hot fat in the baking tray. Put back In the oven and roast for about 15 to 20 minutes until browned and crispy at the edges.
WHITE POLENTA PURÉE WITH FENNEL AND ORANGE.
White polenta is traditionally eaten with fish in Italy. It has a slightly softer smoother texture. Don’t worry if you can’t find white polenta, this is still good with the more easily available yellow.
Master recipe soft polenta made with white grains.
100 grams Florence fennel – cut into small dice
25 grams butter
Grated zest and juice of one orange
Salt and freshly ground black pepper.
Fry the diced fennel slowly in the butter until cooked but still with a little firmness.
Cook the polenta as the recipe. Add the orange zest and juice. Stir well to mix in.
Add the fennel and stir gently to mix in.
Serve with fish of your choice.
Use either white or yellow polenta
Firm polenta as master recipe
50 grams finely grated Parmesan cheese
Cook the polenta as recipe and leave to cool a bit.
Heat the oven to 170 centigrade.
Grease an ovenproof dish about the right size to take the soufflé, individual ramekins can be used if you like.
Separate the eggs. Add the yolks to the polenta and beat to mix in.
Add most of the cheese to the polenta keeping back enough to sprinkle on the top of the soufflé. Mix well.
Beat the egg whites until very firm and white.
Fold into the polenta mix trying not to lose too much air about of the egg whites.
Turn into the greased dish and bake for about half an hour until risen and golden on top.