Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Polenta Without Fear

To the list of imported dishes that are easier to make than we have been led to believe, you can add polenta. When the luxuriously creamy, pale yellow cornmeal mush first began to appear in cookbooks and in upscale Italian restaurants here about 35 years ago, we were (incorrectly) told that to prevent the cornmeal from forming lumps as it cooked, the cook had to stand by, stirring constantly for a half-hour or longer.

Here’s how to make polenta a regular, no-fuss part of your meal plan.

Yield 4 servings

Time 25 minutes

For creamy, soft, mouth-filling polenta, stir in butter and Parmesan -- the more the better. If you want something more flavorful but still a little austere, add herbs, like marjoram or thyme, along with a handful of parsley or basil, and a couple of tablespoons of good extra virgin olive oil. For polenta firm enough to grill, broil or sauté, cook it until the creaminess is gone and it starts to pull away from the sides of the pot, then turn it out onto a plate or a board and let it cool until firm.

  • 1 cup milk (preferably whole milk)
  • Salt
  • 1 cup coarse cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
  • Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
  • 2 to 4 tablespoons butter or extra virgin olive oil
  • 1/4 cup or more freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, to taste, optional
  • 1. Bring milk to a boil with 2 cups water in a medium saucepan and add a large pinch of salt. Adjust heat so liquid simmers. Add cornmeal in a steady stream, whisking as you do to prevent lumps. When it has all been added, let mixture return to a boil, then turn heat to low. Polenta should be just barely simmering.
  • 2. Cook, stirring occasionally and being sure to scrape sides and bottom of pan, for 15 to 20 minutes, until mixture is creamy and cornmeal tastes cooked. If mixture becomes too thick, whisk in some water, about 1/2 cup at a time.
  • 3. Taste and season polenta as necessary with salt and pepper. Take pan off stove, stir in the butter or oil and the cheese if you are using it, and serve, passing more cheese at the table if you like.

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