Thursday, April 23, 2009

Polenta...the northern Italian staple

Not that polenta isn’t served in other parts of the country, but it is as common as pasta in the north. And it is amazingly versatile as well. Basic polenta is a snap to make and can be dressed up or dressed down in an infinite number of ways. It can be served with a rich tomato sauce, with or without veggies, sprinkled with parmesan, loaded with meats and onions, topped with tapenade, on and on and on! It makes a great basis for a vegetarian meal, a main dish, or a side dish.

In larger grocery stores, you can buy pre-made polenta in "bricks" that can be sliced. OK, fine, but hardly necessary. It couldn’t be easier to make this basic dish. All you need is cornmeal, water, and salt. Really! The only trick is that you’ve got to stir it constantly while it’s cooking, but it’s done inside of 20 minutes. There’s actually a method for doing it on low in a slow cooker or crock pot and not stirring it at all past the initial mix, but that takes several hours. You might want to try it, though, if you think you’ll be too busy at the end of the day.

Anyway, here’s how I make it. Later, I’ll be sharing recipes that vary this a bit, along with some nice combos of ingredients and sauces to dress it up for dinner. This recipe serves 4 as a side dish: keep the 3 to 1 ratio if you vary the amounts.

Basic Polenta

3 c water
1 t salt
1 c coarse cornmeal

In a large heavy saucepan, boil the water and salt. Pour the cornmeal in slowly, stirring constantly. Drop the heat to low and continue to cook for 15 to 20 minutes or so, still stirring, until the cornmeal mix pulls away from the sides. I like to add a tablespoon of butter to the mix just before it’s finished and stir it in. Scrape the polenta out into a 3 cup covered serving dish and let it sit until slightly cooled. You can put it in the fridge for later and then just heat it up for a few minutes in the oven, or leave it on the counter for a bit. Slice it up to serve it, along with whatever toppings and sauce you want to add. I like to put mine in a round glass dish (see above), and cut it into wedges.

Polenta with sundried tomatoes and blackeyed peas

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