A few years ago, I bought some instant polenta and made some polenta chips. I followed the recipe exactly, and the result was distinctly underwhelming. A claggy, distracting texture was the main feature, and they only really tasted good when they had cooled to a gentle warmth.
It turns out that instant polenta bears about as much relation to the real thing as instant mash does to a lovingly prepared bowl of proper, buttery mashed potatoes.
It took me years to give polenta another try, once I understood that it was real polenta or nothing. The trouble was, according to all the accounts that I had then read, real polenta takes an hour or more standing at a stove, patiently stirring for the whole time. I love cooking, but it’s not often I can spend a whole hour doing nothing but stir the contents of a pot.
In the last few years though I have taken to actually reading recipe books in their entirety, like I would a novel, and I have learned a lot. As far as polenta goes, I have learned that there are things that you can do to it, and there are things that you MUST do to it. Stirring is an essential part of the process, and not just to stop it from catching on the bottom of the pan, but how much stirring is actually necessary? Not as much as you think actually; the key is slow cooking because all you are trying to do is thoroughly hydrate the corn meal. I use a heat-diffuser under my pan, on the very lowest heat, and stir it every five minutes or so – but more of that in the method below.
The other essential is liquid, obviously. But which liquid? Water is the most traditional, but I have seen it made with vegetable stock (which I don’t like because it masks the subtle but essential corn flavour). Using a mixture of full-fat milk and water gives my preferred result – it’s elusive and almost undefinable, but the milk gives it a subtle richness.
The other must-do is getting the first five minutes right…
Get your water & milk boiling hard, make sure it is salted, and add the corn meal s..l..o..w..l..y. Sifting it through your fingers a small handful at a time is the way to go, whisking hard and fast so that lumps do not get a chance to form. Get this bit wrong and you will never be proud of your polenta. Once the corn meal has all been added, reduce the heat to a low simmer and keep whisking for about 5 minutes until the polenta has properly thickened. Again, if you try and short-cut this bit then your polenta will never have the texture it needs.
How much liquid? It depends on what level of firmness you want. The classic ratio is 1 part corn meal to 4 parts liquid, and that’s great for slices that will be baked or grilled to a melting loveliness. Use 1 part corn meal to 3 parts liquid to make it firmer for chips and the like, and 1 part corn meal to 5 parts liquid makes a loose, potato-mash consistency which is the standard accompaniment for saucy meat dishes and ragu. Recipes for all these will undoubtedly follow…
One last thing… which polenta should you use? There is white corn meal and yellow corn meal, fine ground or more coarsely ground. The good thing is that the things you must do never change, no matter which colour or degree of grind you use. White is a little more delicate than yellow, so which you choose depends on what you plan to have with it. The coarse grind is probably better for firm polenta as used to make polenta chips, and the fine is better for a wetter polenta – but this is family food we are making so I wouldn’t get too serious about it. Buy good quality corn meal, of whatever type, as long as it is never, never, ever instant.
Things that you can do to your polenta include using stock as your liquid. As I said earlier, I don’t do it that way, preferring instead to bring my pan of liquid up to a boil from cold, with the salt added at the beginning with a bay leaf. You can augment it with garlic, and I have seen all kinds of nonsense added in an effort to be trendy or cutting-edge. Polenta doesn’t need it, it’s a base for other things to work around, so I advocate keeping it simple, getting it right and using your imagination on what you are going to serve it with.
The taste and texture? Get it right and it is right up there alongside the most comforting bowl of buttery mashed potato, with a subtle sweet edge from the corn. It is truly delicious.
BASIC RECIPE serves 4
375ml cold water
125ml full-fat milk
1 bay leaf
1 tsp sea salt
125g corn meal
50g unsalted butter, cut into thin slices
75g Parmesan, very finely grated
Put the water and milk in a large saucepan, add the salt and the bay leaf, then bring to a hard rolling boil.
Once the liquid is boiling, remove the bay leaf. It has done its job and if you leave it in it will get broken up as you whisk, leaving you with unappealing ‘bits’ in your finished polenta.
Measure the corn meal into a bowl big enough to get your hand into, and when the liquid is boiling take a small handful and let it slowly sift through the fingers of one hand into the liquid while you whisk vigorously with the other hand. Keep doing this until all of the corn meal has been incorporated and there are no lumps. Reduce the heat to a low simmer, continuing to whisk it constantly.
You will see the mixture transform from a loose slurry to a thickening paste over the space of five minutes. Make sure the polenta has properly thickened before you stop whisking, though it will still be a loose mixture at this stage.
Now put your pan on a heat-diffuser, over the lowest heat that you can. Pop a lid on the pan (this is sacrilege to many Italians, but it works) and let it cook very, very gently for around 30 minutes. Every five minutes, go back to the mixture and give it a good whisk. When it comes to the point that it is too thick to whisk, take a wooden spoon to it.
The polenta is done when the texture becomes creamy and amalgamated. When you taste it there should be no hint at all of graininess from the corn meal.
Turn off the heat and dot the butter around the top of the polenta, then stir it in until it has almost all melted, then add the finely-grated Parmesan. Stir again, cover again, and leave it to stand for five minutes. Check the seasoning, and now you have something you can work with.
What you do with it next depends entirely on what your meal plans are, but there is absolutely nothing wrong with just taking it to the table in a serving bowl, drizzling it with a very little extra-virgin olive oil and a generous grinding of black pepper and eating it with a spoon. It’s quite amazing in a bowl, topped with a fried egg as well!