They only want you to think it’s hard
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.
I just love your posts! I think I’ll save this one until after the fast though and try it with the cheese. We tried polenta a few years back and it wasn’t a hit…I don’t think anyone complained tremendously though so I think we should try it again.
Julia Child wrote about polenta and agreed that it’s easy. She had a good theory about the old labor-intensive stirring recipes: Back when Italians lived in large extended families, Grandma would be given the job of “stirring the polenta” to keep her occupied while Mom made dinner. Keep stirring that polenta, Grandma!