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Polenta 101

Martha Stewart Living, October 2007

Pretty much anything you know about polenta is true. It's yellow. And it's white. It's coarse. No, wait, it's fine. It's eaten with a fork, when it's not eaten with a spoon. And it's great for breakfast. Or was that dinner?

The point is that you'd be challenged to find a more versatile dish, which explains why it's been a mealtime staple, in one form or another, since Caligula was emperor. Polenta -- at its most basic, a hearty mixture of cornmeal and water -- was traditionally food for commoners because it was all of the things peasant food ought to be: inexpensive, readily available, nourishing, and delicious. Whatever its local moniker, polenta is eaten all over the globe. But to be fair, Italians have always taken it more seriously than most.

As any Italian will (perhaps vigorously) tell you, there is not a single, overriding cuisine in his homeland: The food there is as varied and distinctive as the regions on a color-coded map. So we turn to the north -- Emilia-Romagna, Lombardy, Piedmont, and the Veneto -- where polenta is revered and made with great care. The key is to whisk the grains into boiling water gradually, which helps make the polenta smooth, not lumpy. A low, steady flame prevents the bottom from burning (and the surface from spewing piping-hot bubbles of cornmeal). Once the polenta has reached a creamy consistency, ladle it out and pair it with something crisp and salty, such as grilled shrimp or vegetables, or something meaty, such as stew.

Or let the polenta set until firm, cut it into pieces, grill it with portobello mushrooms, and serve it with greens. This will put at least one debate -- the fork-spoon conundrum -- to rest.

This method uses two pots: one to cook the polenta, the other to simmer water that is gradually added to the first. The dry polenta is kept in a bowl wide enough to dip a hand in. It's then sifted through the fingers so that too much isn't added at once. As it cooks gently only one or two bubbles should appear at a time. If not being served soft, the polenta can set.

Italian tradition is to use string, but dental floss also does a good job of making clean, controlled cuts without compressing the polenta, as a knife can. Holding floss taut, cut the mound in half horizontally to create 2 layers. Make vertical cuts as shown. You should have 24 pieces.

Basic Polenta (Soft or Set)
Baked Polenta Squares with Mediterranean Toppings
Grilled Polenta and Balsamic Mushrooms
Fried Polenta, Eggs, and Sage

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