Playing With Polenta

A few months ago, I received an e-mail from "Mister McG" who expressed much frustration over a pot of polenta. He writes: "I learned last night why they sell pre-cooked polenta in those tubes. I made some from scratch last night and it came out very lumpy. Tasty, but lumpy. As soon as I started adding cornmeal to the boiling water, it clumped up. Do I need to let the water settle down before mixing?"

Intellectually, I knew the solution was to add the cornmeal gradually, but I couldn't back up my written reply with first-hand polenta experience. I promised to follow up with a kitchen report, so this blog's for you, Mister Magoo.

Polenta, topped with spicy anchovy-garlic tomato puree, with a side of broccoli raab. (Kim O'Donnel)

Cornmeal porridge is what we're talking about, and depending where you live, it's got a different name (mealie pap in South Africa; ugali in East Africa; grits in the American South). Most grits-eating Americans are used to white cornmeal porridge with their shrimp and morning eggs, but in Italy, polenta is yellow, like the sun.

Despite my culinary training in Piedmont, Italy, I stayed away from polenta because of my long-held assumption that it would take forever to make -- and that I'd screw up the works. (I remember the evening when I was tasked with stirring a pot of mealie pap in Johannesburg; I had very little guidance and inevitably my pap turned into cement.)

Determined to help Mister Magoo and finally get polenta right myself, I pulled a few books off the shelf and found sound advice in "A Passion for Piedmont" by Matt Kramer, who devotes an entire chapter to the subject.

The bottom line: Polenta needs about an hour of your time, start to finish, and a little bit more if you want to zip it up with a sauce (an extra step which I highly recommend.) It doesn't require a second academic degree (or even an extra hand), just a little faith that everything is gonna be alright. Despite what everyone tells you, polenta needs regular but not constant stirring, which means a watchful but not obsessive eye.

Cornmeal getting close to becoming full-fledged polenta. (Kim O'Donnel)

The recipe details below are solid; I was happy with the results, both in terms of texture (soft but not goopy) and seasoning (salted just right). And the sauce -- a slowly cooked melange of garlic, oil, anchovies, tomatoes and parsley -- makes for a beautiful polenta cloak, not too sweet, salty, acidic or rich. For a little color, I cooked up a bunch of broccoli raab (blanched for one minute, drained, then sauteed in garlic and olive oil), which offered welcome slightly bitter notes as well as toothy contrast.

If you've got 90 minutes to experiment on a cold winter midweek eve, I say go for it. But if such a time slot seems a luxury after a long day at work, give this one a whirl over the course of a leisurely weekend.

P.S.: If anchovies are not part of your repertoire, olives and/or capers would make suitable salty substitutes.

Polenta with a Spicy Tomato Sauce
From "A Passion for Piedmont" by Matt Kramer

1/4-1/2 cup olive oil
1 small head garlic (about 12 cloves), separated, peeled and thinly sliced
6 whole salted anchovy fillets, rinsed, soaked briefly in water and finely chopped
Approximately 16 ounces tomatoes -- 5 choped fresh, seeded tomaotoes or equivalent amounts from a can (I used tomato puree)
Handful fresh Italian parsley leaves, very finely chopped
1 jalapeno pepper, seeded and finely chopped, or ΒΌ-1/2 teaspoon cayenne pepper
Cooked polenta (see details below)

Pour oil into a small heavy-bottomed saucepan set on very low heat. Add garlic and anchovies. Add more oil if necessary to barely cover ingredients. Cook for at least 30 minutes, making sure garlic does not color or burn.

Add tomatoes, parsley and pepper. Cook over medium-low heat for another 30 minutes, stirring occasionally. Meanwhile, make polenta (recipe to follow).

Classic Polenta
From "A Passion for Piedmont" by Matt Kramer

8 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cups stone-ground medium cornmeal (also sold as corn grits or polenta)

In a large heavy-bottomed pot, bring water and salt to a boil. Drop cornmeal into pot a handful at a time, "like rain," stirring or whisking constantly and making sure water continues to boil When all of cornmeal is incorporated, about five minutes -- continue stirring but lower heat as cornmeal mass thickens. It will soon become fairly dense and taken on volcanic qualities as it erupts periodically. Lower heat if necessary to keep eruptions at a minimum and stir cornmeal mass regularly so all of it is exposed to the heat.

As polenta cooks, it will lighten in color and become slightly fluffy in texture. When it is approaching a fully cooked stage, it will start to pull away from sides of pot as you stir. At anytime after this stage -- about 30 minutes -- polenta is ready to be served, but if you prefer, keep cooking and stirring for another 10, 15 minutes to enhance texture. You can't really overcook polenta, as long as you keep stirring to prevent scorching.

Makes four entree-sized servings.

By Kim ODonnel |  January 7, 2008; 9:29 AM ET Discoveries , Hot Pot
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Kim-- Thanks for the great blog on polenta. The corny dish was a staple in my household growing up and still is today. Two ways we like to have it:

* put in casserole dish and layer in with red sauce and mozz. cheese (cook until bubbly).

* Crisp up some tiny bits of prosciutto, chop up some rosemary and add to cooked polenta mixture (with a generous helping of black pepper). Then-- top with freshly grated parm cheese. (and/or top with some sundried tomatoes in olive oil)

Now I'm hungry. I bet you can guess what I've decided to make for dinner this evening...

Posted by: Polenta LOVER! | January 7, 2008 10:27 AM

We used to call it 'mush' when we lived next door to a family that ate it all the time. They lived in a cinder block hen house with dirt floors. Their supper was uusally boiled potatoes.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 7, 2008 10:43 AM

So, how regularly/constantly do you need to stir it?

Posted by: Reine de Saba | January 7, 2008 11:12 AM

Reine: For the first five minutes after all of the cornmeal has been dropped into the pot, you want to go at it constantly, but once it starts to thicken (and gurgle), you can lower heat and stir every 3 or 4 minutes to minimize sticking to bottom of pan and to distribute heat. Recipe offers clear, reliable how-to, by the way.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 7, 2008 11:24 AM

I've made polenta and spoonbread many many times and learned by trial and error that you can just mix the corn meal with cold water (or milk for spoonbread) and then slowly heat it up. The texture is great and there are no lumps.

Posted by: also hungry | January 7, 2008 11:32 AM

While perhaps not "authentic," I've never been able to taste the difference between the traditional method and the cold water method, except that I NEVER get lumps using the cold water method.

This was taken from Polenta by Michele Anna Jordan

This technique is virtually foolproof when it comes to avoiding lumps. If you've had trouble in the past with lumps, use this version until you are more comfortable making polenta.

6 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
1 cup coarse or medium-grind polenta
1/2-1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
3 tablespoons butter
2 ounces Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, grated
Pour 3 cups of water into a large heavy pot, add the salt, and stir in the cornmeal. Place the pot over high heat, stirring as the mixture comes to a boil. (Bring the remaining water to a boil in a separate container.) Lower the heat and simmer, stirring every few minutes until the mixture thickens, about 10 minutes. Add 1 cup of the additional water and continue to cook the polenta over low heat until it is tender. The polenta should be soft and creamy, without hard grains. Depending on the age and type of polenta, this will take from 15 to 60 minutes; add more water as necessary. Stir regularly from the bottom of the pot so that the thickened polenta does not scorch. When the polenta is nearly ready, stir in the pepper and butter, followed by the cheese. Remove from the heat. To serve immediately, pour onto a large platter or bowl or individual dishes.

Posted by: Anon | January 7, 2008 11:34 AM

We eat polenta all the time. It cooks like a charm in my Zojirushi rice cooker, no stirring needed at all!

I bet it would work in a slow cooker too, but I haven't tried that approach.

Posted by: Leslie | January 7, 2008 12:05 PM

I grew up with "mush". I didn't like it then and I don't much care for "polenta" now. But I made it for my husband who liked it fried with Maple syrup. I found the cold water method produced a lump-free corn meal.

Posted by: fraley | January 7, 2008 12:10 PM

P.S. I didn't grow up in a hen house with dirt floors but my father loved "mush" and also scraple which is made with corn meal and pork. I'll bet you can guess where I came from!

Posted by: fraley | January 7, 2008 12:16 PM

My great grandmother was from Romania, where they called it mamaliga and served it with a sheep cheese called brinza and sour cream. It was soul food for my mom. I made it for her once when we all still lived in Philadelphia and I found brinza at the Reading Terminal Market. I haven't found it around here anywhere; does anybody know a store that might carry it (or even an on-line source)? All this talk of polenta makes me yearn . . . and the late, much lamented Fio's in the Woodner on 16th Street used to have the best polenta and sausages!

Posted by: Mel | January 7, 2008 1:12 PM

Fraley must be from the south. We ate scrapple, too. I liked it fried with maple syrup on it. Another favorite for breakfast was corned beef hash with eggs, and creamed chipped beef on toast until my father told us what they called it in the Army-Air Corps.

I like cornbread slightly sweet and warm, spread with butter. Got a blue ribbon at the County Fair for my cornbread one year.

I found a recipe for 'polenta' in a la-de-dah cookbook by a French chef who claimed it was a favorite of Jackie Kennedy. Big deal -- give it a different name but it's still cornmeal mush.

Posted by: Anon. at 10:43.... | January 7, 2008 1:47 PM

It's probably heresy, but I make my polenta in the microwave (using same proportions of water & cornmeal, just in a large bowl). It comes out beautifully smooth, ready for saucing or cooling, slicing and grilling. Enjoy!

Posted by: Monticello | January 7, 2008 1:51 PM

I'm from Pennsylvania and grew up on Philadelphia Scraple, but not willingly.

Posted by: fraley | January 7, 2008 2:54 PM

Hey Polenta LOVER, your casserole dish is called polenta pasticiata (or one or many similar names). My family used to use bechamel sauce and parmegian cheese instead of the mozzarella. Sauteed mushrooms are a good addition too. I've done it both with hot polenta and cooled/sliced polenta. Good stuff.

Posted by: Arlington, VA S | January 7, 2008 4:04 PM

Cook's Illustrated has several methods for cooking polenta. I used their double boiler method until they published a microwave method which is perfect since I am only cooking for two.

In a 2-quart Pyrex measuring cup, microwave 1 cup medium grind cornmeal, 3 1/2 cups water, and 1 tesp salt at 100% power for 6 minutes. Uncover and stir thoroughly, then cover with saran wrap and continue to microwave at 100% power until polenta is creamy and fully cooked, 5 to 6 minutes longer.

Posted by: Mary O | January 7, 2008 5:19 PM

In Romania polenta ( mamaliga ) is a national food. From time to time you can cook very easy mamaliga and eat instead bread. A pure mamaliga is made only with yelow cornmeal, salt and water. Nothing more. You need to have a "tell" to stir all time. The pot is prefferable to be heavy and with thickwalls. You can use the recipe given in this article. Don't worry, if you wrong any time when the mixture is hot you can add water or cornmeal to correct. First you put water with salt to boil and when the water is boillig put a clock at 10 min. Begin to add cornmeal little by little. When you finished you continue to stir and if you a not satisfied with the consistency, you may add water or cornmeal. When you stir keep the pot's handle with the other hand in a glove. The mamaliga is ready after 7-8 min, but you may continue until the clock is ringing. Put could water in the empty pot.
Polenta is very healthy. Eat polenta with milk. Children will adore it. Mix polenta with cheese and sour cream. It was my preffered food in my childhood. Mix polenta with omleta, or fish, or butter, or sarmale ( a Romanian dish ). Cover polenta with a plastic foil in order to avoid hardenning.

Posted by: Viorel | January 8, 2008 2:54 AM

I grew up on polenta (one of those European types) and I still love it. We typically ate it with a tomato and vinegar based fish stew, but you can eat it with anything. Sometimes I just top it with fresh tomato sauce, sometimes I make a creamy wild mushroom sauce, whatever I feel like. I even love it plain.

Posted by: polenta lover | January 8, 2008 8:20 AM

Polenta with sundried tomatos, garlic, dried mushrooms and topped with gorgonzola and then baked.

Posted by: yum! | January 8, 2008 9:21 AM

Another way to make polenta...Cook the polenta until a spoon scraped through the middle of the pot leaves a clear path. Oil a bowl and put the polenta in there, covering the top of the bowl with a plate. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes (to set) and then turn bowl upside down and pop polenta out. This technique keeps the polenta from being total mush and actually allows you to cut slices of it.

Posted by: Anonymous | January 8, 2008 9:27 AM

LOVE polenta! When I was growing up in Russia, a treat on a Saturday morning was hot polenta with feta cheese dropped inside. Now I make it with blue cheese, or use it to make lasagna. And mine never takes more than an hour.

Posted by: Olga | January 8, 2008 9:29 AM

Grilled polenta appetizers:

I make polenta on the thicker side (stirring in chopped herbs, chopped sun dried tomatoes, garlic, salt, pepper, parm), let cool, and wrap in plastic wrap, making cylanders.

Stick in fridge.

When ready, take out, slice in about 3/8" slices and grill on both sides. Top with an olive or caper tapanade.

Posted by: Silver Spring | January 8, 2008 9:40 AM

A variation on PolentaLover's dish: substitute brick cheese for mozzarella and skip the tomato sauce. Serve with wilted lettuce and bacon bits. Heaven. Even better cold the next day.

Posted by: Kittengirly | January 8, 2008 9:48 AM

It is interesting all this discussion about polenta. In Albania it's a dish cooked mainly in the South and it's called either "memelige" or "bullumach". I think the only difference with the Italian version is that it is cooked longer and therefore it creates a very beautiful crust in the pan. It tastes wonderful with just feta cheese.

Posted by: raleigh | January 8, 2008 10:47 AM

In the West Indies (Jamaica in particular) cornmeal porridge, and cornmeal pudding are wonderful dishes. My mother taught me to always add the cornmeal to cold water. Both are made with freshly squeezed coconut milk, sugar, and associted spices. I can see and taste that hot pudding just out of the oven with that custardy top the coconut milk creates. Absolutely delicious with a glass of cold milk!!!!

Posted by: mel | January 8, 2008 11:42 AM

Inspired by you, we made polenta "from scratch" last night -- not the precooked kind. My local Kroger didn't offer a large cornmeal selection. This being the south, most of the choices were self-rising cornmeal mixes meant for baking. But I finally found a brand from South Carolina consisting of pretty much nothing but corn. The result was a total yum -- perfect with a turkey sausage and portobello mushroom ragout. I will be looking for a coarser, stone ground cornmeal for future meals.

Posted by: Neener | January 8, 2008 11:51 AM

Hi Kim, finally! An entry on polenta. Thanks so much for this! I tried making it from scratch 3 nights ago and it was a complete disaster. Too salty, too clumpy. I just couldn't serve it to my family. I'll give yours a whirl next time.

Posted by: Jasmin | January 8, 2008 12:42 PM

I, too, do polenta pizza. And the cold method is super easy. The first time I made it it was perfect, so no need to try the other way and get lumps. Is there some sort of tast advantage to the hot way?

Posted by: atb | January 8, 2008 1:55 PM

Wow! I'm amazed at so many posts! I've read them all thus far hoping someone would address why the corn meal has to be streamed into boiling water and why that is superior to the "modern" method of just adding the corn meal (or grits) to cold water and then bringing to boil and cooking. I suspect it has to do with the release of the starch in the corn and has some effect on texture and/or cooking time, but since you're going for a smooth creamy texture and cooking for up to an hour, what's the difference really (other than traditional vs. not)? I grew up making cream of wheat (a wheat meal mush cereal really) for myself from a young age and hated having lumps in my cereal, so I quickly learned the cold water method for starting the dish. I've never understood why all the recipes specify bringing the water to boil to start with.

And I can say that I have a slow cooker cookbook that recommends cooking the polenta for about two hours or so, covered and with only an occasional stir (can't remember if it's cooked on high or low though). I served that to my vegan father along with eggplant caponata and I'd say it was a success. I've always used fine cornmeal for my polenta and it's always come out creamy and lump free whether eaten hot out of the pot or cooled and used in other dishes like "lasagne" or whatever. I've got some goat milk in my fridge and was thinking about using it for risotto, but polenta...

Posted by: Sean | January 8, 2008 1:57 PM

Thanks to all of you for such a lively thread. Sean, I think you hit on a good point about the benefits of a hot-water polenta versus cold-water method. My training is rooted in classic technique so it made sense to me to begin with boiling water (as you might with pasta). I also learned to make risotto using additions of hot liquid. Bottom line is: Do what works! I am thrilled so many voices are surfacing, from Jamaica to Romania and back to the grits-filled South. It's great.

Posted by: Kim O'Donnel | January 8, 2008 2:08 PM

Madhur Jaffrey has a "cheater's" way of making polenta that we rely on regularly. I don't have her book (World Vegetarian) in front of me, but the basic idea is to mix the cornmeal and cold water in a bowl, and bring more water to a boil on the stove. When it's boiling, you re-stir the cornmeal and cold water, then pour it in, and stir until it begins to thicken, then pour it into a greased dish, add a lid, and pop it into the oven for about 45 minutes. Comes out perfect every time!

Posted by: Anonymous | January 8, 2008 4:03 PM

i use my rice cooker for making polenta. it works beautifully. i find that i prefer polenta made with broth & mixed with some cheese. i also eat it with roasted veggies. i will say that the first time i ate polenta i hated it!!! i tried it with some other flavors & that definitely helps.

Posted by: quark | January 8, 2008 4:22 PM

In the far northeast of Italy(Friuli-Venezia-Giulia region)white polenta is quite common rather than the yellow version.

Posted by: Peter Mariuz | January 8, 2008 4:28 PM

They're just grits! Should need no introduction for Post readers. Good for dinner as well as breakfast (butter, never syrup for me). I don't know why it takes half an hour to cook them rather than a few minutes.

Posted by: Jean | January 8, 2008 7:28 PM

Hi, Kim.
Thanks for the article: you totally inspired tonight's dinner:

Posted by: orchidgirl1979 | January 8, 2008 10:18 PM

I lived for four years on North Eastern Italy. They love polenta but it was white, not yellow as the sun. Polenta is a staple. Thanks for the great recipes!

Posted by: Adrasteia | January 8, 2008 11:49 PM

I also grew up on cornmeal mush - and fried mush!

It's absolutely easy in the microwave - Barbara Kafka has a recipe (she calls it polenta) -- 4 cups water, 3/4 cups cornmeal for soft, 1 1/4 cups cornmeal for firm. 6 min. for soft polenta, 12 minutes for firm.

Posted by: Nancy | January 9, 2008 12:22 AM

I'm all for the simplicity of cooking so if it comes out great in the microwave or the rice cooker, more power to you! I checked my slow cooker recipe and it says to combine 3 cups of water with one cup of cornmeal. Cook on high for 1.5 hours with an occasional stir. I think the ratio of water to cornmeal is higher in the slow cooker because there will be less evaporation than if you're cooking it on the stove. I can say that polenta this way came out beautifully and needed very little attention as I prepared the rest of my meal.

Posted by: Sean | January 9, 2008 12:16 PM

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