This easy basic polenta recipe becomes a blank canvas for all of your culinary creations. Serve with braised meat paired with a reduction sauce and you have yourself a fancy meal on any weeknight. Make it creamy with butter and parmesan or quick fried in a pan, there is a polenta for everybody.
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Why you need polenta in your life right now.
Polenta has been around since Roman times and for good reason. It is easy to make, versatile and customizable. No special equipment is needed beyond a pan and a whisk and it’s relatively cheap too.
Polenta can be made into a creamy side like mashed potatoes, kissed with butter and parmesan. Serve with Saltimbocca Alla Romana, a perfect pairing. It can also be poured into a baking dish and cooled in the refrigerator where it will set into a solid but soft block of polenta, waiting to be parceled out into medium sized squares, begging to be shallow fried in a pan, as in this recipe for Fried Polenta with Mushrooms.
These little, browned parcels are then adorned with rich sauces or goat cheese and herbs. Pesto, yes definitely pesto too. What else? What would you put on your fried polenta parcels?
Your imagination will dictate how the polenta will transform. With just a little guidance from the recipe below, this easy and basic polenta recipe will be the newest weapon in your culinary arsenal, waiting to do battle with the most finicky eaters at your dining room table.
What is polenta?
Polenta is a dish made of boiled cornmeal, similar to grits. In Roman times they used any hulled grain that was available as corn had not been introduced yet from America. Soon after corn arrived in Italy, it quickly surpassed the other grains as a favorite among locals. The starch from the corn along with the ability of the grain to absorb a lot of liquid adds to the creaminess quality that is polenta.
How is polenta different from grits?
Both dishes are made with coarse cornmeal. Traditionally polenta comes from a type of yellow corn called flint and grits from a type of white corn called dent. Either corn types can be made fine, medium or coarse.
Stone ground corn has a more uneven texture than machine ground. The coarser the cornmeal, the more liquid you will have to add to reach the consistency you desire. It will also effect the cooking time.
Grits are cooked to a mushy consistency and polenta is cooked to a more toothsome, sturdier consistency. You will know when polenta is done cooking when the grittiness texture is gone and the polenta pulls away from the pan when stirred. Polenta is supposed to have a creamy smooth feeling in the mouth. I am not sure about grits. If you know a thing or two about this Southern favorite, share your wisdom in the comments below.
Tips for the best polenta:
- Add as much liquid that is needed. You want to keep cooking polenta until it is creamy soft, just keep adding water as needed. It is perfect when it is both creamy and pulls away from the pan when stirred. The amount of liquid polenta needs depends on the coarseness of the grain. Typically, a firm polenta needs about a 4:1 ratio of water to cornmeal and a creamier polenta needs 5 or 6:1 ratio.
- Use broth for added flavor instead of water.
- Add cream or olive oil at the end for more richness and creaminess.
- If you desire more corn flavor to come through, use water instead of broth and only use minimal butter, cream, cheese at the end.
- Don’t use instant polenta.
- You may start polenta in cold water and heat from there. The cold water won’t cause any lumps. If you need to add liquid later to hot polenta, you will get lumps but you can easily whisk them out.
- You don’t need to stir constantly but you do want to stir often. As the polenta cooks, it will stick to the bottom and can burn.
- Soak the cornmeal in its cooking liquid overnight to shorten the cooking time.
Other recipes you can serve on top of fried polenta parcels:
- Rogan Josh – a Kashmiri curry
- Jambalaya – this crockpot version is easy, just serve over polenta instead of rice.
- Palak Paneer – a spinach and paneer curry.
- Pesto – an Italian classic.
- Chimichurri Rojo – a South American favorite.
What other ideas do you have?
Tips for Leftover Polenta
- Pour leftover polenta right into a shallow pan. The size depends on how much polenta you have left. Refrigerate and use as leftovers the next day. The polenta will solidify and is ready for part two.
- Part two – You can either fry, bake or freeze.
- Fry Method – Cut polenta into squares or triangles and fry in a well oiled hot pan. Don’t try to flip over too soon, the polenta will stick to the pan until it is ready to flip over. A nice brown crust will form and detach from the pan. Serve by itself of with a condiment, butter or gravy on top.
- Bake Method – In a skillet, cook onions and mushrooms in butter or olive oil until soft. Sprinkle on top of the polenta you have in a shallow pan. Sprinkle with the cheese of your choice and bake until warmed through.
- Freeze Method – Cut polenta into squares or triangles, wrap in plastic wrap and place in a freezer bag. Polenta can be frozen up to three months. Thaw completely before preparing using the fry or bake method above.
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The Five I want to try are:
- Skirt Steak with Gorgonzola Polenta
- Fontal Polenta with Mushroom Saute
- Cauliflower Steaks & Maitake Mushrooms & Browned Butter-Caper Sauce – If I were vegetarian, this would be my Sunday night dinner.
- Cabernet Short Ribs with Parmesan Polenta
- Mushroom Polenta Canapes – Your creamy polenta leftovers can be tomorrow nights appetizers.