It’s been a while since we had polenta. And we love polenta. Sure, it’s a bit time-consuming to make, but it’s so delicious and versatile that we could eat it on a regular basis. After all, you can eat it as soft polenta, or chill and shape it, then fry it, or grill it, or broil it, eat it plain, or with butter, or a sauce. It seems to be the perfect food. All from just a couple of ingredients, too. What to scratch up a batch? Follow along.
Polenta is one of those things, like risotto, for which we really don’t follow a recipe anymore. Well, we do, but the recipe is more second nature to us, so it just seems as if we’re winging it in the kitchen, but we aren’t. If you’re the same way, you can just scan the recipe for the ingredients and you’ll be ready. But, if not, cooking up a batch of polenta is pretty easy; it just takes a while.
Polenta is corn meal, sort of. It’s definitely ground corn, but it’s a slightly coarser grind that gives polenta a better texture. It might be difficult to find, but we think it’s worth it. We get ours from the bulk bins at the local food co-op. For the cheese, we used Westminster Smoked Cheddar; it’s been aged about a year and is nice and smokey-tasting. The main reason we chose it was that it was half price at the supermarket. Otherwise, we might have used another brand. We just wouldn’t skimp on the quality.
Procedure in detail:
Oil baking pan. While we suggest a teaspoon of olive oil in the recipe, we just pour a bit into the pan and spread it around. We use olive oil simply because it’s easiest for us — we have those bottles with the pour spout attached. Otherwise, we might use canola oil, or even butter. Basically, you need something to keep the polenta from sticking to the pan while is cools.
Whisk in polenta. Add the salt to the water and bring to a full rolling boil. Once boiling, you can reduce the heat a bit, but start whisking the water in circles. Now, slowly drizzle in the polenta. Don’t pour it all in at once or you’ll have lumps in your polenta, which you won’t like. Keep drizzling until the polenta is all in the water, and continue whisking for another 5 minutes so the polenta can thicken.
Stir and cook. Reduce the heat to medium-low and switch from the whisk to a wooden spoon and start stirring. Keep stirring and scraping the sides. You can take a break from time to time, but stir more than you rest. And don’t rest more than a minute or so. After about 45 minutes, the polenta will be very thick, sometimes so thick you can stand the spoon upright. That’s good.
Stir in butter. Once your polenta is done, turn off the heat and stir in the butter. Keep stirring until the butter is completely melted and incorporated.
Stir in cheese. Add the grated cheese and stir until melted and the mixture is completely blended. Give it a few extra stirs just to make sure.
Taste and season. Taste your polenta and add salt and pepper as needed.
Shape and chill. Pour and scrape the polenta into the prepared baking dish and smooth the surface. Place a piece of waxed paper onto the surface and press it down, smoothing the top even more. Refrigerate until completely set, at least 3 hours.
Cut, heat, and serve. Slice the polenta into wedges. We quarter the polenta, then cut each quarter into four triangles. For heating, you have a couple of options — we microwaved it, simply because it’s been so hot here, but you can place it on a baking sheet and broil, or, our favorite way, brush with oil and grill it for a few minutes. Serve plain or with a sauce of your choosing, although we think the cheese alone is enough to make this a great dish.
Polenta is somewhat a labor of love. You do need to watch and stir it a lot. And for quite a while, generally about 45 minutes. We think that it’s worth it to get something so tasty from such simple ingredients, especially if you can add some additional flavors, such as the smokey cheese we used here. It’s a four star dish.