Polenta is delicious, versatile and easy to make. Some older cookbooks make polenta prep sound like a long, laborious process involving constant stirring for hours. Don’t be fooled: it’s easy. Here’s how.
If you’re lucky, your supermarket will sell actual polenta, which is coarsely-ground cornmeal and gives a slightly more interesting texture. If they don’t have it, regular yellow cornmeal works fine and tastes the same. Do not get “Instant Polenta”. Make any amount you want, just preserve a 4-to-1 ratio of water to cornmeal. I’ve seen recipes that stretch this ratio to 5-to-1; I haven’t tried it, but you can. This example uses 2 cups of water.
- Measure out 2 cups of cold water.
- Put 1/2 cup cornmeal in a saucepan with a generous pinch of salt.
- Pour a small amount of the water in the pot. Stir until the cornmeal is all wetted. Mash with a fork until there are no lumps, adding a bit more water as you go. When you have a lump-less slurry of cornmeal (this will only take about 30 seconds), stir in the rest of the water.
- Turn on the heat under the saucepan and bring the mixture to a full boil, stirring it regularly. When it comes to a boil it will quickly start to thicken. Be careful at this point; it tends to give off volcanic splatters of hot cornmeal.
- As soon as the mixture has reached a full boil, cover and turn off the heat. Wait about 10 minutes. Polenta!
If this weren’t about fasting, you’d stir in a big hunk of butter and a handful of grated cheese before setting the polenta to cool, and it would be delicious. But it’s pretty good served straight.
While it’s still hot, it makes a good breakfast cereal. After it sits for awhile, it will set into a solid mass: if you’re planning to let it set, pour it into a small greased loaf pan while it’s still hot. Once it’s set, you can cut it in slices which you can re-heat with some tomato sauce on top, or you can fry it: this is what southerners poetically call “fried mush”. Poor-people food for sure, but that’s what you want during a fast, isn’t it?
To boost the flavor while keeping it Lenten, here are a couple of things you can do. While it’s cooking, you can stir in a big pinch of red pepper flakes, curry powder or chili powder. If you’re more the sweet-tooth type, stir in some brown sugar. To give a good savory flavor, finely chop an onion, brown it in some oil in a saucepan, then add the cornmeal and proceed as above.