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.
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.
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 ¼-1/2 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).
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.
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