Too often ignored in northern Europe, polenta is the perfect ingredient for tasty, inexpensive and filling winter meals.
Of the countless Italian-origin products that have become staples on British supermarket shelves over the past decades, polenta is undoubtedly both the most underused and misunderstood, and many who enthusiastically embrace pasta, pesto and pizza still view polenta with a outright suspicion.
But once you’ve got your head around the different kinds of polenta – and the fact that you don’t just have to serve it as a pile of gluey mush - you might just fall in love with its versatility and pastoral charm. Still not convinced? Then read on….
Polenta is simply meal made by grinding corn, and is available in different grades ranging from coarse to fine. For the pedants out there, polenta isn't actually polenta until it's cooked, and yes the popular southern US ingredient known as grits is almost exactly the same (the subtle distinction being that grits are made using dent corn, while polenta is ground from flint corn).
Instant polenta takes just a few minutes to make as it comes part cooked, but purists may sniff at such a shortcut. This variant is, however, ideal for using in cakes. Polenta also comes ready-made in tubes or blocks, which can simply be sliced and reheated.
Although the more delicate white polenta, favoured for seafood dishes in northern Italian regions like Venezia, can be sourced from specialist outlets, it’s the hardier yolk-yellow polenta that's most frequently found in the UK, and supplied here at Maws (in 500g bags of fine traditional, and larger grain in 25kg catering size).
This rustic, saffron-coloured polenta is the type that’s most popular in northern Italy, where it’s often found making an accompaniment to the rich meaty ragu sauces favoured alpine regions such as Piedmont and Lombardy. However one of the most exciting things about polenta is it’s sheer versatility, and those who can only picture polenta as side serving of porridge-like mush are in for a pleasant surprise…
Cooking perfect polenta
Traditional polenta can take up to 50 minutes to cook, depending on the coarseness of the grain. There are so many differing opinions on the correct ‘authentic’ Italian way to cook polenta that it’s probably easiest to say that polenta can be successfully cooked in boiling water, stock or milk. It will, however, take up to an hour for the starch to break down to a smooth consistency, and the most important recommendation is to stir regularly while this process is occurring.
If you treat cooking polenta in much the same way as making risottos, i.e. think of stirring more as applying a constant massage with a spoon, then you won't go far wrong. If you want to adhere to the unspoken Italian rulebook, cook your polenta in a copper pot.
As mentioned above, the key to perfectly cooked, smooth polenta is to keep that wooden spoon rotating, even as you add the polenta to the pan. Make sure the water is boiling then continually whisk it while you pour in the polenta in a thin steady stream. Add any flavourings once the polenta has cooked – traditionally, this is a generous knob of butter and a handful of grated Parmesan to make it extra creamy, but the secret is plenty of seasoning.
One of the best things about polenta is that with a little kitchen know how and a dash of imagination, it can become one of the store cupboard’s most impressive ‘secret ingredients’.
CRISPING: Fine polenta makes a great coating for anything that requires a satisfying crunch, and is especially effective for creating extra-crunchy roast potatoes, merely by dusting them generously before roasting. Mixed with other herbs spices and seasonings polenta also makes a remarkably good Southern-style coating for fried chicken.
STUFFING: Polenta is a fabulous, light alternative to breadcrumbs when making stuffings for poultry or fish. Combine with cream, garlic and pancetta, or spinach and mushroom, or fresh herbs, cheese and dried fruits such as cranberries and apricots, the possibilities are deliciously huge.
BAKING: Cornbread is tasty, easy to make and beats a regular white sliced loaf any day of the week. Moist, with a large dense crumb, it’s perfect dunked into chowders and souther-style Creole, served with spicy Caribbean curries, or any other dishes with an excess of tasty juices to sop up. And if all that wasn’t enough, polenta also makes an amazing alternative to flour for creating amazing, gluten-free cakes.
With so many uses, we're certain polenta has the potential provides more than a few grains of culinary inspiration’ in your kitchen this year…