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Polenta -- clue me in!

I've come to believe that sometimes the idea of a particular food is far better than the reality of it. Such was my experience yesterday, when I attempted to make polenta for the very first time. I've had polenta only a few times, and I can't say I've ever been smitten with it. But a couple of months ago I saved a photo and recipe for leg of lamb served over polenta from Food and Wine magazine -- it looked so delicious -- and since I was making a grilled butterflied leg of lamb, I decided it was time to try the polenta. Here's a link to the recipe: http://www.foodandwine.com/recipes/le...

Maybe it was the recipe that left me disappointed. Since there were just two of us, I halved the recipe in the magazine. Maybe you just can't do that with polenta, but since I've done it quite successfully with risotto, I thought it'd be safe to do it with polenta, too.

I used imported (Moretti brand), coarse (not instant) polenta. The original recipe called for 1 cup of polenta, 4 cups of water, 1 cup of milk, 2 tablespoons of unsalted butter, 1/2 cup of mascarpone and 1 cup of freshly grated Pecorino Romano. I measured half of each of those ingredients precisely and followed the instructions. What resulted was a rubber-like, gloppy, tasteless concoction, flavored only by the Pecorino Romano, that was anything but "creamy and tender" as described in the recipe. Maybe I overcooked it. Maybe halving the recipe required an adjustment to the cooking time. I didn't cook it for as long as the recipe indicated (which was about 45 minutes in total) because it looked like it was drying out.

So while the IDEA of polenta still intrigues me, I think I need to be sold on its virtues. When it's done right, is it really delicious? How do you make it interesting and flavorful? Is it worth trying again, or should I just toss the rest of the contents of the package of polenta? Thanks for your advice.

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  1. Check B Kafka 'Microwave Gourmet' book. She shows many ways to make polenta for firm, soft, gooey, whatever, for me no fail, ever.

    1 Reply
    1. re: Delucacheesemonger

      Kafla's polenta in the microwave is the only recipe I use. It is no fail and there is no standing and stirring.

    2. All that cheese and mascarpone sounds like overkill. Done right, polenta is creamy, smooth, and a little "corn-y". Maybe give it one more shot. Here's a recipe I like. You could sub cream or half and half for the evaporated milk.

      Creamy, Cheesy Italian Polenta

      -1 1/2 c. evaporated milk (full fat) [1 regular can]
      -1 1/2 c. 2% or whole milk
      -1 c. of water + 1/2 tsp. of chicken Better Than Bullion OR 1 c. chicken broth
      -1 c. dry polenta
      -1/4 c. finely grated Parmesan Reggianno cheese
      -salt and pepper, to taste

      In a large saucepan, bring the milk, evaporated milk, and broth to a boil. Off heat, whisk in the polenta. Return the pan to the heat. Stir with a wooden spoon until the polenta has thickened and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 10-15 min. (depends on whether your polenta is "quick cooking").

      Stir in the grated cheese, salt, and pepper, and serve immediately. Alternately, you can spread in an 8x8-in. of 8-in' round pan and let sit until set, then cut into wedges and grill (oil the grates).

      1. I have many different ways to make it from labor intensive to stupidly simple....and *yes* it does taste really wonderful to me :)

        You might really enjoy just the simplest preparation too. Just follow easy or package directions for baked polenta (in a square pan). Then cut into squares and top with cheddar cheese and salsa of your choice. Serve with a salad (and a big margarita!) and you will see how nice polenta can be :)

        1 Reply
        1. re: sedimental

          We usually make just 1/2 recipe of it in a 8" square pan. Salsa sounds good, but sometimes I'll use my homegrown tomatoes for a fresh tomato basil sauce for it. By itself, polenta can be a tad boring.

        2. I agree with taking out the bells and whistles and get a basic recipe down maybe with a little parm added, then get more elaborate from there.

          A simple polenta can be truly glorious. It's not a dish that I tend to think about a lot this time of year though.

          1. for starting to make polenta, I would use a ratio of up to 1:7 polenta to liquid. You can use less, and don't be afraid to add more liquid. I use 1-2 TBS butter, melt with the liquid. I usually use a mix of chicken broth and a dairy or two, milk cream, half and half, depending on what I have around the house. Bring to a boil (probably not milk) then slowly add the polenta on low heat while stirring constantly. Then you have to stirr frequently to constantly for 30-45 mins, the coarser the grain, the longer you need. I finish with salt, a little parm, and a pat of butter. For all that, polenta is very plain tasting. I use it as a base for some sort of savory dish with a bit of sauce--osso buco, short ribs, sausage and tomato, etc. I would not eat it plan, because it will be bland, as a whole meal.

            you can definitely use different techniques and less stirring, etc. Also, I use Bob's Red Mill, and not the most coarse, because it takes longer to cook.

            1. It sounds like you may have ended up in that terrible middle ground between creamy polenta and firm polenta. I like the creamy style which for me is 1/2 cup corn meal, 1 cup milk, 1 cup water, salt. When the liquids boil, I add the corn meal in a steady stream, whisking the whole time. I turn it down low and cook for about 15 minutes, stirring almost continuously. The final consistency should be that of a cake batter. At that point, I add maybe a handful of cheese--Comte, Parmigiano, Cheddar--and a bit of butter as well as good amount of pepper. If you turned off the heat at this point, as it cools it could become rubber-like, especially with too much cheese. But this is the moment for me that everyone is at the table and the plates--which already have sausage, rapini and tomato sauce--get the final dish, a nice pool of creamy polenta poured out of the pot onto the plates.

              1. I don't like milk in my polenta. I think it blands up that corn taste. I make mine with 1 cup polenta to 4 cups water (sometimes need more), lots of salt and pepper, a few tbsp butter. It's salt, not cheese, that makes polenta come alive, to me anyway. You can add some freshly grated parm just before serving, if you like, but only if whatever you're serving it with would benefit from it.

                1 Reply
                1. re: Isolda

                  i agree about the no- milk. as for glopping it up with mascarpone and cream and such, that's not the point of it. its culinary role is as a foil for rich stews and braised/grilled meats.

                  i use a mix of fine and coarse-ground, water, butter and salt. LOTS of salt. i use the wolfert slow-cook oven method, which is fool-proof. towards the end of cooking i add grated parm or romano. the finished dish determines how much water i use. anywhere from 1:2 to 1:5. the 1:7 makes it too gruel-like. any left-overs can be cut up into small squares or round and fried.

                  and yeah, i only make it in winter, since it needs such a long cook-time.

                2. So far, from your replies, it seems as though I had the ratio of polenta to liquid right, but maybe there was something in the chemistry of halving the recipe that didn't work right. But it also looks like it needs something else on the plate to enhance the flavor -- gravy from a braised meat, for example. Yes, I can see now how it's more of a cold-weather dish, with the long cooking time on the stove, and a braised entree to accompany it.

                  Okay -- you've all convinced me to give it at least one more try. But I'll probably wait until fall.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: CindyJ

                    You are not alone. I have eaten it in restaurants, and made it in varying consistencies, plain and flavored, several times. I have given it plenty of chances and have concluded that I just don't like it. I'll take my corn in cornbread, on the cob, or as popcorn.

                    1. re: CindyJ

                      A resource I can recommend: www.ansonmills.com

                      Their product is spendy and takes planning to source (they grind your product when they get your order) but the results are fantastic.

                      The Polenta Integrale is fantastic.

                      While I've not yet tried it, their crockpot method for polenta is intriguing.

                      1. re: CindyJ

                        I think you have to be a diehard polenta fan to like it straight--though making it with fresh corn added this time of year can be wonderful. I almost always have it with a tomato sauce or ragu of some kind. Then it is a wonderful foil for the strong flavors on a cool evening.

                        1. re: CindyJ

                          I think the mascarpone and excessive amount of cheese changed the texture unfavorably. mascarpone can be greasy.

                        2. where the hell is Thew? with his kick-butt oven polenta method/recipe? . . .

                          7 Replies
                          1. re: soupkitten

                            likely the wolfert method i mentioned.


                            to the op: when kept simple, this is a fool-proof dish, and the ratios are not do or die, and it is a recipe that can be easily halved or doubled.

                            1. re: hotoynoodle

                              The more I learn, the more I realize I don't know. I just looked at that recipe. Clearly, it's for a firmer polenta. So, does the question of firm vs creamy ("runny") deserve its own post? Is it a matter of personal preference, or are the various textures better for certain uses?

                              1. re: CindyJ

                                I think it is a matter of personal preference. You also can buy "firm" premade polenta in the market (I find it very bland) whereas you have to make the soft at home. I've had the firm fried, grilled, baked and even layered in place of noodles in a lasagna and it just doesn't appeal to me. But if it's served I certainly eat it, just prefer the soft.

                                1. re: CindyJ

                                  Sure it can have different consistencies. In some parts of Italy they like to make it stiff enough to serve mounded on a wood platter, and cut with a string. The stiff version is also best for slicing and frying or baking. But if you want to serve a pool of it under your lamb chops, it needs to be creamy.

                                  1. re: CindyJ

                                    Polenta is very much matter of taste. Some love it, others don't. I grew up on it and have been lucky to have excellent versions of it in the French and Italian Alps, but have also had some poor versions. I like mine loose, so it can be spread out on a big board with dollops of butter dropped in. I also like adding some fresh corn - or even better, fresh grilled corn - with a bit of cheddar. I like to keep it plain, but the best polenta I've had was in Bergamo, a version called polenta taragna, which is essentially a bit of a finer grind polenta mixed with buckwheat flour, and with cheese cut in at the end. Mario Batali has an easy version of it on the Food Network site. Taragna elevates polenta (a bit) from it's working-man role, one of providing an easy starch component of a meal, one that can easily incorporate other flavoring items, and one that can soak up juices.

                                    Personally, I don't like the firm version, which is then often fried or grilled. But, that's a personal preference.

                                    1. re: foreverhungry

                                      I tried adding some buckwheat flour to a regular coarse grind polenta (Bobs Red Mill), and wasn't impressed with the result. The color was an unappealing gray, and the texture wasn't much different. I wonder about the 'elevating from a working-man role'. Wasn't buckwheat something that was used regionally because it grew better in some poor conditions. But I only have a cursory knowledge of the use of buckwheat in Italy, both before and after the introduction of maize.

                                      1. re: paulj

                                        I haven't tried formulating my own taragna. Polenta taragna (served with roasted rabbit or small birds) is one of Bergamo's classic dishes, found on most restaurant menus. Every time I've had it there I've found it to be among the better polentas I've ever had. It's smoother, creamier, and tastier than the regular version (and I'm a big fan of the regular version). I don't know if there's something special about the buckwheat they use, but taragna is made with a finer grind polenta than the standard, so that might address the texture issue. The taragnas I've had, the color wasn't gray, but it didn't have the regular polenta-yellow color either. Overall a bit more taupish, but it looked like regular polenta but with lots of brownish specks.

                                        I don't know a ton about their use of buckwheat, except that it's especially prevalent in Northern Italy. In Trentino Alto Adige, they use buckwheat to make straight polenta, pasta, gnocchi, and deserts. From what I've heard and read, before maize, buckwheat was used for polenta, and the buckwheat had a distinctive flavor and was high in nutrients. When maize was introduced, it overtook buckwheat because in most areas it was more prolific and had higher crop yields. I'm not putting polenta up with molecular gastronomy, but I think polenta taragna is a tastier version than the straight stuff.

                              2. I like polenta in different ways for different things.. Firm then fried, topped with bruschetta, or just some melted cheese, then eat like chips--great for appetizers. Creamier type for lamb, or a tender steak or even under a spicy fish. Just try it different ways, it kind of reminds me of the grits I ate growing up. You can mix a lot of things with it and come up with a whole new flavor and use.

                                1. Try it this way: first, make the polenta by cooking 1 cup of coarse yellow cornmeal and 4 cups of cold water (with 1 tsp salt) overnight in the slow cooker. Next morning, add 8-12 oz sharp cheddar cheese, shredded, and 1/4 tsp hot red pepper. Stir and cook until the cheese melts. Turn the polenta into bread pans and refrigerate for a day until it gets stiff. Slice it and saute it until the edges get crispy. This approach is loosely based on the polenta-and-cheese fried croquettes I remember from Buenos Aires of 60 years ago.

                                  1. Making polenta is very much like making risotto - the liquid amount will vary. You should cook it for the length of time the recipe states - if it is drying out add more liquid (water, stock or milk). Also make sure it is seasoned to taste. Some additional salt might help. The longer you cook it the creamier and richer it will become.

                                    3 Replies
                                    1. re: libstewart

                                      +1 This.

                                      I don't think the OP's texture problem was the cheese, though some may find all the cheese too rich or greasy or muddled in flavor - not problems the OP experienced. The OP's issue (too thick, gloppy) was that her particular polenta needed more liquid, regardless of what the recipe called for. She even said she cut the cooking short because it looked like it was drying out (perhaps the heat was also too high?) Looks like an open and shut case to me.

                                      So next time, add more liquid to keep it loose if needed while cooking.

                                      1. re: cowboyardee

                                        One of the things I was unsure of was whether I could add additional liquid in the middle of the cooking. I certainly considered it, but didn't know, for example, if it would have to be heated first (as when making risotto), whether it should be water or milk or maybe stock. I had no previous experience with polenta. I tasted it and it seemed cooked, so I cut the cooking time short.

                                        1. re: CindyJ

                                          I just add a half cup or so of tap water to the polenta and stir until it is blended in (and repeat as needed). This isn't precision cooking like risotto. It's not that different from cooking oatmeal or cream of wheat.

                                          How long it takes till it tastes done depends on the coarseness of the meal. Finer grind like regular American cornmeal (or quick grits) may only take 20 minutes, a coarser grind takes 40, or even 2 hrs if you have the time. More time means it can absorb more water.

                                    2. I wouldn't add any of the cheese until the end, off the heat. Like risotto.

                                      If it looks dry, add more water.

                                      1 Reply
                                      1. re: jaykayen

                                        The Pecorino Romano was added at the end, but the mascarpone was added about 30 minutes into the cooking time.

                                      2. I've lent my Low-Fat Moosewood cookbook to a friend, but I think that's where I found a good (firm) "Stained-Glass Polenta" recipe. The stained glass bit comes from chopped sun dried tomatoes added in, along with some other colorful veggies. I still like a tomato sauce with it, but it's very pretty and tasty.