Thursday, October 14, 2010

Hands On - Polenta

Polenta with gorgonzola.  Happiness in a bowl.

Almost all the corn grown in America (other than sweet corn) feeds either livestock, ethanol plants or some kind of manufacturing facility (e.g. corn oil, corn syrup, corn starch, etc.)  Since I am kind of a contrarian I like the idea of feeding corn directly to myself and those for whom I cook.  How quaint.  Eating corn without an intermediary other than some kind of grinding apparatus.

One way to enjoy corn is in the form of polenta.  Polenta was once the name in Italy for all manner of cereal grains cooked and eaten either as soft porridges or stiff "cakes".  But nowadays - even in Italy - it refers to a dish made with corn.  Corn was accepted as a good food by the Italians by the mid 1500's and eventually became a staple, especially in northern Italy.  (It actually became too much of a good thing.  Many peasants who ate virtually nothing other than corn suffered from pellagra, a type of disease caused by a niacin deficiency.)

Polenta is extremely easy to cook, very affordable, tasty and versatile.  We have it around all the time and eat it for breakfast with a little honey and fruit or nuts or for dinner with all manner of sauces, stir-ins or toppings.  It is lovely just plain with a drizzle of olive oil or grating of parmesan.  Or it takes well to complex tomato, meat or vegetable sauces.  Greens cooked in olive oil with garlic are great chopped and stirred into polenta.  Or try this sometime:  prepare a simple soft polenta.  Serve in heated individual bowls.  Add a perfectly poached egg to each bowl.  Salt and pepper as desired.  Maybe add a little parmesan.  Eat.  You will feel nourished in so many ways.

Kinds of polenta corn
We grow and grind our own special kind of corn that is famous for making good polenta.  It is called Roy's Calais - an open pollinated heirloom flint corn originally cultivated by the Abenaki people in Vermont.

You might note little red flecks in the pictures of polenta in this post.  That is because this variety of corn has both red and yellow ears.   It is not at all necessary for you to run around and find a special kind of corn, however.  You can find perfectly fine polenta at any co-op (usually sold in bulk) or at most large grocery stores.  Bob's Red Mill brand is widely available.  For the two or three readers out there who want to take this to a higher level, just e mail me at and I will be happy to relay more esoteric information about polenta corn varieties.

Soft or firm
The recipe below is for a fairly soft polenta.  If you want it firmer, just use a little less water.  One thing you can do with the cooked polenta is pour it into a loaf pan (rinse with water and empty the pan first. The little bit of residual water helps prevent sticking) and chill overnight.  It firms up quite a bit and then you can slice and fry or broil or bake it and serve plain or with toppings.  Make a double batch. 
Serve half soft and chill the other half for slicing later.

Milk or water
I almost always use water to cook polenta.  But if you want it richer or more nutritious, by all means use milk to cook it.

Wooden spoons work best for stirri
Some people are afraid to cook polenta because they think they are going to have to stir it constantly for hours.  Not true.  If you were cooking a huge batch in an Italian farmhouse in a copper pot over an open fire yes - you would have to stand there for an hour or more laboring with your wooden paddle.  But for a small batch using 1-2 cups of polenta and 4-8 cups water?  No.  Just use a heavy pot, stir steadily the first five minutes and after that stir a few times every 5-10 minutes and you should be fine.  Cook polenta when you are in the kitchen doing something else and it is no big deal to stir it every so often.

Coarse or fine
In Italy it is not unusual to see polenta sold in very fine form as well as coarse.  Finely ground polenta will cook faster and have a smoother texture.  I personally like a coarser texture in my polenta.  Most ground corn sold as polenta in this country is fairly coarse.  If you want a finer product, there is nothing wrong with buying good old stone ground corn meal and cooking it up with water and salt.  Corn meal mush.  Polenta.  It is the same thing.

Classic polenta
You should cook this in a heavy pot. 
8 cups water  (or milk or part water and part milk)
2 cups polenta
1 1/2 t. salt (or more to taste)
(optional) 1-2  T. butter or olive oil

Bring water to a boil.  Add salt.  Add polenta about 1/4 cup at a time while stirring.  After all polenta is added, stir fairly constantly for about five minutes.  Set heat so polenta continues to bubble and simmer but does not bubble so much that corn meal explodes all over your stove.  Stir a few times every 5-10 minutes.  If you are using typical coarse polenta, it should take about 45 minutes to cook.  If it is too thick, add a little more milk or water.

Serves 6-8.  Spoon from the pot onto heated plates or bowls.

Cleaning the pot
Scrape out as much polenta as you can.  Soak the pan overnight in cold water.  It should clean easily the next day. 


  1. Here's a polenta sauce to die for:

    Crush or puree some stewed tomatoes (canned Italian plum tomatoes are fine), and put them in a big pot. In a separate frying pan, fry some hot Italian sausage (loose, cut from the casing) until very brown. Add to the tomatoes. Fry some sliced mushrooms in the sausage grease (this will magically clean the pan, too) and add to the pot. Simmer for about 1 and 1/2 hours. Salt, pepper, and oregano to taste. Yum. You can serve this over pasta, too.


  2. I just finished a bowl of polenta with gorgonzola like the one in the picture above. Actually in the same bowl with the same spoon! A great way to start what otherwise might be a grueling day.

  3. Your sauce sounds like perfect polenta partner, Underemployed. If I had some Italian kale (lacinato or sometimes called black kale) around I would slice it up and add to the tomatoes along with the sausage. Got to get our NINE F & V servings a day!