Whether served as part of a main course, a side dish, or even a hot breakfast cereal, polenta made from whole-grain cornmeal has the best flavor and nutrition

Polenta may well be the trendy starch of the ’90s. Italian restaurants from coast to coast are serving this cornmeal mush, often at high prices and with plenty of attitude. But polenta is really the most humble of foods. This Italian word refers to both cornmeal and the dish made by cooking corneal in water until it thickens into a soft pudding consistency A cousin to American grits, polenta is hearty peasant fare at its best and simplest.

Perhaps American chefs have adopted this cornmeal porridge because it can take on so many guises. Fluffy polenta can be eaten as is from the pot with a sprinkling of fresh herbs and a drizzle of olive oil as a side dish. A soft mound of polenta can be a base for cooked greens, mushrooms, or most any other vegetable, much the way Asian cooks use rice with stir-fries.

Polenta can also be spread out over an oiled baking sheet and cooled until firm. The polenta can then be cut into squares, rounds, triangles (or whatever shape is desired) and down cooked again – fried, broiled, grilled, or even sauteed. These crisp polenta crostini (the Italian word for croutons or canapes) can be topped with sweet peppers or a dab of black olive paste to make an antipasto. The possibilities are endless. Polenta can even be served as a hot breakfast cereal.

Buying the Best Cornmeal

Since polenta – the dish – is nothing more than cornmeal, water, and a little salt, the quality of the cornmeal is paramount. The size of the grind (fine, medium, or coarse) as well as the grinding process are extremely important and account for the vast differences in quality.

In terms of size, I find that medium-grind cornmeal is best for polenta. Very fine cornmeal (with a texture akin to table salt) can become gummy when cooked into a porridge. Since most of the cornmeal sold in supermarkets is finely ground, you must look elsewhere (ether to health food stores or gourmet shops) for medium-grind cornmeal. When the granules are about the size of refined sugar, I find that cornmeal cooks up soft nd fluffy Larger granules (as found in coarse cornmeal) can be too gritty for polenta.

Perhaps even more important than the grind is the presence or absence of the germ and bran. The germ and bran have a relatively high oil content, which makes whole-grain cornmeal (called polenta integra in Italian) fairly perishable. In ode, to increase shelf life, many manufacturers remove the bran and germ. In terms of both nutrition and flavor this results in a tasteless disaster.

Degermed cornmeal, even if it has been enriched after processing, has substantially fewer nutrients than whole-grain cornmeal with the germ and bran. Whole-grain cornmeal has three times as much calcium; twice as much fiber, iron, potassium, phosphorous, thiamin, riboflavin, and niacin; and 15 percent more protein than degermed cornmeal.

In terms of flavor, the differences are equally dramatc. Whole-grain cornmeal has a sweet, intense corn flavor. Degermed cornmeal lacks my sweetness and has a tepid corn flavor. Since whole-grain cornmeal has a tendency to go rancid, you must take a few special measures when shopping. A few months is enough time for whole-grain cornmeal to turn, so shop from health food stores that do a brisk business. If the cornmeal is sold in bulk take a taste. Place a small pinch on your tongue and wait for two or three seconds. If you get a hint of sweetness, the cornmeal is fresh. If all you taste is harshness or bitterness, the cornmeal is past its prime. Once you get home, store the cornmeal in the freezer It will stay fresh for many months.

Labeling – especially of bulk container – scan be confusing, so finding whole-grain cornmeal requires some close observation. Luckily whole gram cornmeal does have two distinguishing physical characteristics. The cornmeal should have light and dark specks from the germ and bran. If the cornmeal is uniformly gold, it has probably been degermed. Another test is to take a small pinch between your fingers. If the cornmeal contains bran and germ, it will stick together, at least temporarily, due to the oil content. The granules in degermed cornmeal will remain distinct like salt when pressed together

Finally, a note about color Cornmeal can be made from yellow, white, or blue corn Polenta is usually made from yellow cornmeal. Nutritionally yellow cornmeal contains a fair dose of vitamin A; white and blue cornmeal have none. Otherwise, the three kinds of cornmeal are interchangeable, although blue polenta would surely strike Italians as odd.

Cooking Polenta

Purchasing good cornmeal is only on, part of making great polenta. The other challenge is cooking. Italians approach polenta making with plenty of ritual and fanfare, much of which is impractical for American cooks or just plains unnecessary Traditionally, polenta is cooked in a heavy copper pot set, called a paiolo, which is used specifically for that purpose. Although a heavy pot is essential, there is no need to purchase a special piece of copper equipment.

As for the technique, bring water to a boil in the pan, add salt, and then add the cornmeal in an extremely slow stream with one hand as the other hand stirs a long wooden spoon to create a vortex. Stir in the cornmeal quite slowly, over a period of ten minutes or so, to prevent the formation of lumps. Then comes the really hard part – thirty to forty minutes of constant stirring. If you haven’t worked out recently your arms may simply give up before the polenta has thickened properly. Although this method will produce excellent polenta that s fluffy, soft, and fully cooked (polenta cooked for less time can have a raw flavor), the work is arduous.

There are a number of simpler cooking methods, two of which I fully recommend. Polenta can be cooked in the top of a double boiler. The cornmeal is whisked into boiling water in the top portion of the boiler and then set over simmering water for sixty to ninety minutes. There is no need for constant stirring (a stir every ten or fifteen minutes is fine), but did total cooking time is really quite long, making this my second choice for everyday cooking.

A better method is to cover the polenta and cook it over very low heat. Instead of using a wooden spoon to work the cornmeal into the water, a whisk permits the cornmeal to be added much more quickly and guarantees that no lumps will form. With cover on, splattering is kept to a minimum, and stirring is necessary only every ten minute or so. The key to this method, however, is low heat. If the polenta is bubbling away, reduce the heat. Anything more than an occasional bubble means that the polenta is cooking too quickly and will scorch the pan.

A final method for cooking polenta involves even less work. Italians are so fond of polenta that manufacturers have responded with “instant” polenta – precooked and rehydrated cornmeal that only needs to be rehydrated and cooked briefly before serving The technique is the same here – water is brought to a boil and the salt and cornmeal are stirred in – but the cooking time is five minutes, not dirty or forty. However, constant stirring is required.

So what are the differences in quality between real polenta and the instant versions? In terms of nutrition, instant polenta is sometimes made from degermed cornmeal, so it may contain fewer nutrients than whole-grain cornmeal and may have a duller corn flavor But I have found imported brands with lovely dark specks that are obviously from the germ. Also, unlike other processed products, instant polenta does not contain any preservatives or additives and the convenience factor here is extremely high. When you don’t want to wait forty minutes, instant polenta is an excellent option.

Instant polenta tends to be a bit coarser than slow-cooked polenta. The difference is apparent when serving a creamy mound of polenta under some greens. For this reason, I recommend that you buy regular polenta and cook it slowly when serving it as a side dish or as part of a main course (Follow the Basic Polenta recipe, below.) However, if you are making crostini and will be cooking the polenta twice, I find that instant polenta works fine. I have made specific recommendations in the recipes that follow, although either type of polenta will work in all of the recipes except one – use instant polenta to make Breakfast Polenta with Raisins and Almonds.

BASIC POLENTA

This recipe can be used to make either soft or firm polenta in any amount desired. The difference between soft and firm polenta is simply the amount of water used – four cups water per cup of cornmeal if the polenta will be eaten hot and three and one-third cups of water if the polenta will be cooled until firm and cut into squares. Less water makes the polenta firmer and better suited to broiling or grilling. See individual recipes for specific amounts of water, salt, and cornmeal.

  • Water
  • Coarse salt
  • Medium-grind cornmeal
  1. Bring water to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Stir in salt and then whisk in cornmeal in slow, steady stream. (This should take a minute or so. (Cook over medium heat, whisking constantly, until polenta starts to chicken, about 2 minutes.
  2. Reduce heat to lowest possible Simmer and cover pan. Cook, stirring every 10 minutes or so, until polenta starts to pull away from sides of pan, about 40 minutes. Serve soft polenta immediately or pour into oiled baking pan to set.

QUICK POLENTA

Italians love polenta even for fast meals. Pre-cooked and dried instant cornmeal are staples in Italian homes. So-called instant polenta is imported into this country and sold in health food stores, gourmet shops, and Italian markets. Like regular polenta the instant version can be used to produce either soft or firm polenta. Use more water for polenta that will be eaten hot and less water if polenta will be cooled and sliced. See individual recipes for specific amounts of water, salt, and cornmeal. Although I recommend Basic Polenta in some of the recipes that follow, Quick Polenta can be substituted in all cases.

  • Water
  • Coarse salt
  • Cornmeal for instant polenta
  1. Bring water to boil in heavy medium saucepan. Stir in salt and then whisk in corn meal in slow, steady stream. (This should take a minute or so.) 2. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until polenta thickens and starts to pull away from sides of pan, about 5 minutes. Serve soft polenta immediately or pour into oiled baking pan to set.

POLENTA CROSTINI WITH MIXED BELL PEPPERS

Serves 8 as a first course or 12 as an hors d’oeuvre

This Italian appetizer is made by spreading hot polenta out onto a baking sheet. When cool and firm, the polenta is cut into squares, triangles, or diamonds, toasted until crisp (this can be done either under the broiler or on the grill), and then topped with cooked vegetables. Here, a medley of bell peppers cooked with a little onion and some basil is paired with the polenta. I find that the red, yellow and orange varieties are the sweetest peppers and use one of each in this recipe.

Quick Polenta made with 5 cups water, 1 1/2 teaspoons salt, and 1 1/2 cups cornmeal

  • 3 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for oiling baking sheets
  • 2 Small onions, halved through ends and sliced very thin
  • 3 medium bell peppers, cored and cut into very thin strips
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
  1. Prepare polenta. When polenta pulls away from sides of pan, spread it onto lightly oiled rimmed baking sheet that measures about 8 inches across and 12 inches long. Cool polenta for at least 30 minutes or until firm. (Wrap baking sheet in plastic and refrigerate polenta overnight if desired).
  2. While polenta is cooling, heat 2 tablespoons oil in medium saute pan with cover Add onions and cook over medium heat until golden, about 10 minutes. If onions start to brown, lower heat.
  3. Add bell peppers, salt, and pepper to pan. Toss peppers to coat them well with oil and cook for about 1 minute. Cover pan and cook, stirring occasionally until peppers are meltingly tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in basil, turn off heat, and cover pan to keep contents warm.
  4. Preheat broiler Place large cutting board over pan with cooled polenta and carefully invert polenta onto board. Cut polenta into 2-inch squares. (Polenta can be cut into diamonds or triangles if desired.) Brush squares with remaining tablespoon oil and return them to a second lightly oiled baking sheet that measures at least 10 inches across and 15 inches long.
  5. Broil polenta squares until crisp and just beginning to turn brown in spots, about 5 minutes. Flip squares and cook until crisp on second side, about 5 minutes more. Divide pepper mixture among polenta squares and serve crostini immediately as a sit-down first course or let crostini cool slightly until just warm and serve as an hors d’oeuvre.

POLENTA CROSTINI WITH BLACK OLIVE TAPENADE

Serves 12 as an hors d’oeuvre

Smooth black olive paste can be used to top broiled squares of polenta for a festive hors d’oeuvre. Other purees, made from red peppers or even fresh basil leaves, can be used in the same fashion. Use high-quality olives here, preferably those sold in bulk at a gourmet store or Italian food shop. Gaeta, Kalamata, and Nicoise are all good choices. imported olives sold in glass jars may also be used, but do avoid canned domestic varieties.

  • Quick Polenta made with 5 cups water, 1 1/2, teaspoon salt, and 1 1/2 cups cornmeal
  • 1 cup black olives packed in brine, pitted (see note above)
  • 1 medium shallot, peeled
  • 1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves or 1/4 teaspoon dried
  • 1 tablespoon lemon juice
  • 4 tablespoons olive oil
  • Ground black pepper
  1. Prepare polenta. When polenta pulls away from sides of pan, spread it onto lightly oiled rimmed baking sheet that measures about 8 inches across and 12 inches long. Cool polenta at least 30 minute or until firm. (Wrap baking sheet in plastic and refrigerate polenta overnight if desired.)
  2. While polenta is cooling, place olives, shallot, thyme, and lemon juice in work bowl of food processor or blender. Process, scraping down sides of bowl as needed, until ingredients are finely chopped. With motor running, slowly pour 3 tablespoons oil through feed tube and process until sauce is smooth. Scrape sauce into small bowl and stir in pepper to taste. (Tapenade can be covered and refrigerated for 3 days in refrigerator. Bring to room temperature before use.)
  3. Preheat broiler Place large cutting board over pan with cooled polenta and carefully invert polenta onto board. Cut polenta into 2-inch squares. (Polenta can be cut into diamonds or triangles if desired.) Brush squares with remaining tablespoon oil and return them to a second lightly oiled baking sheet that measures at least 10 inches across and 15 inches long.
  4. Broil polenta squares until crisp and just beginning to turn brown in spots, about 5 minutes. Flip squares and cook until crisp on second side, about 5 minutes more. Cool polenta slightly. Spoon one heaping teaspoon tapenade over each square and serve crostini immediately.

SOFT POLENTA WITH PORTOBELLO MUSHROOMS

Serves 4

Large, sturdy portobello mushrooms have the flavor and texture to stand up to cornmeal in this dish. I particularly like this dish with polenta taragna a variety popular in northern Italy that is a blend of cornmeal and buck-wheat flour Look for this specialty polenta in Italian markets or gourmet shops. Follow Basic Polenta recipe to prepare this slightly nutty, hearty variety

Basic Polenta made with 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup cornmeal

  • 8 medium portobello mushrooms (about 1 pound)
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 4 medium garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary leaves
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 1 cup coarsely chopped drained canned tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup red wine
  1. Prepare polenta at same time that you are making mushroom sauce.
  2. Trim and discard stems from mushrooms. Cut caps into, 1/2-inch-vade strips and set diem aside.
  3. Heat oil in large saute pan. Add garlic and rosemary and cook over medium heat until garlic is lightly colored, about 1 minute. Add mushrooms and toss to coat the with oil. Cook until mushrooms are nicely browned and tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Season mushrooms with salt and pepper.
  4. Add chopped tomatoes and wine to pan. Bring liquid to boil and reduce heat to low Simmer gently until tomatoes soften and liquid in pan reduces but does not completely evaporate, about 10 minutes.
  5. Divide polenta among four bowls. Spoon mushroom sauce over each portion and serve immediately.

SOFT POLENTA WITH GREENS

Serves 4

Greens are cooked down Southern-style with onions and garlic for a quick main course. Red-veined Swiss chard is my first choice, although white-veined chard can be used. This dish can be prepared with three pounds of flat-leaf spinach (the variety sold in bundles and not the curly leaves sold in bags) if desired.

Basic Polenta made with 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup cornmeal

  • 1/2 pounds Swiss chard, preferably with red veins
  • 1 1/2 pounds spinach, preferably flat-leaf variety
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 2 medium onions, minced
  • 6 medium garlic doves, minced
  • 1 teaspoon salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  1. Prepare polenta at same time that you are preparing greens.
  2. Remove and discard stems from Swiss chard and spinach. Tear large leaves in half. Wash leaves in successive bowls of cold water until grit no longer appears on bottom of bowl. Shake greens to remove excess water but do not dry diem with towels. Set damp greens aside.
  3. Heat oil in large soup kettle. Add onions and saute over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in garlic and cook until golden, about2 minutes.
  4. Add greens, salt, and pepper to pot. Stir to coat leaves with oil. Cover and cook, stirring or three times, until greens are tender, 5 to 7 minutes. Remove cover and simmer until some liquid in pan cooks off to 3 minutes. Greens should be moist but not swimming in liquid.
  5. Divide polenta among four bowls. Spoon greens over each portion and serve immediately.

SOFT POLENTA WITH TOMATO-LENTIL SAUCE

Serves 4

This sturdy sauce relies on sauteed carrots and onions as well as canned tomatoes and lentils. Unlike other legumes, lentils do not require soaking. They become tender after twenty to twenty-five minutes of cooking.

  • Basic Polenta made with 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2/3 cup brown lentils
  • 1 bay leaf
  • 1 medium garlic clove, peeled
  • 3 tablespoons olive oil
  • 1 small onion, minced
  • 1 medium carrot, peeled and diced small
  • 1 rib celery, diced small
  • 1 cups chopped and drained canned tomatoes
  • 1 teaspoons salt
  • 1/4 teaspoon ground black pepper
  • 2 tablespoons minced fresh parsley leaves
  1. Prepare polenta at same time that you are making lentil sauce.
  2. Bring 2 quarts water to boil in medium saucepan. Add lentils, by leaf, and whole garlic clove, then simmer over medium heat until lentils are tender but not mushy, 20 to 25 minutes. Drain, discard bay leaf and garlic, and set lentils aside.
  3. While lentils are cooking, heat oil in large saucepan. Add onion and saute over medium heat until translucent, about 5 minutes. Add carrot and celery and cook until vegetables have softened, about 10 minutes.
  4. Add tomatoes, salt, and pepper to pan. Simmer gently until sauce thickens somewhat, about 10 minutes. Add lentils and heat through for a minute or two. Stir in parsley. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust seasonings if necessary.
  5. Divide polenta among four bowls. Spoon lentil sauce over each portion and serve immediately

SOFT POLENTA WITH OLIVE OIL AND HERBS

Serves 4 to 6

A drizzle of olive oil and sprinkling of fresh herbs turn soft polenta into a delicious side dish that can be served with grilled or roasted vegetables or any kind of beans. Fresh herbs are essential, so use whatever is on hand, including parsley, basil, sage, thyme, and oregano. Use three tablespoons of milder herbs like parsley and basil, but only two tablespoons of more pungent herbs like sage, thyme, and oregano.

  • Basic Polenta made with 4 cups water, 1 teaspoon salt, and 1 cup cornmeal
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more for drizzling
  • 2-3 tablespoons minced fresh herbs (see note above), plus several whole leaves for garnish
  • Ground black pepper

Prepare polenta. When polenta starts to pull away from sides of pan, stir in 2 tablespoons oil, minced herbs, and pepper to taste. Taste and adjust seasonings if necessary. Transfer herbed polenta to serving bowl. Drizzle with more oil to taste and garnish with several whole herb leaves. Serve immediately

BREAKFAST POLENTA WITH RAISINS AND ALMONDS

Serves 4

Like other grains, cornmeal makes an excellent hot breakfast cereal. Here instant polenta is cooked in almond milk instead of water Plump golden raisins, toasted almonds, and a drizzle of maple syrup add sweet and crunchy notes.

  • 4 cups almond milk
  • 1/2 cup golden raisins
  • 1/4 cup sliced almonds
  • 1 cup cornmeal for instant polenta

Maple syrup

  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. While oven is heating, place milk and raisins in heavy medium saucepan. Bring milk to boil, turn off heat, and set aside until raisins are soft and plump, about 5 minutes.
  2. While raisins are soaking, spread almonds out on small baking sheet. Toast nuts, shaking pan occasionally to turn them, until golden brown, about 5 minutes. Do not let nuts burn. Set toasted nuts aside.
  3. Use slotted spoon to transfer raisins to small bowl. Bring milk back to boil and whisk in cornmeal in slow, steady stream. (This should take a minute or so.) Cook over medium-low heat, stirring constantly with wooden spoon, until polenta thickens and starts to pull away from sides of pan, about 5 minutes.
  4. Stir raisins back into pan and divide polenta among bowls. Sprinkle with toasted almonds and drizzle with maple syrup to taste. Serve immediately.

HOW TO COOK POLENTA

The following steps apply to both Basic Polenta and Quick Polenta:

  1. When the water comes to a boil in a heavy saucepan, use a whisk to create a vortex in the water. With the other hand, add cornmeal in a slow stream, whisking constantly to prevent the formation of lumps.
  2. Once the polenta starts to pull away from the sides of the pan (about 40 minutes for Basic Polenta and 5 minutes for Quick Polenta), serve the soft polenta immediately or follow step 3 for crostini.
  3. Use a spatula to spread the hot polenta evenly over an oiled baking sheet. Cool for 30 minutes, turn it onto a work surface, and cut it into the desired shapes.