I have a produce problem. This time of year, I can’t resist buying as many fresh vegetables off of farmers’ market tables as I have biceps to tote them home. Peaches, apples, beets, cabbages, tomatoes, eggplants and kale. . . . my crisper is full to bursting.
Polenta to the rescue! It’s simple to make, as long as you have some time to pay attention, but once you’ve got a batch, it makes a perfect base for many dishes and sauces — including my farmer’s market largesse. It’s also a tasty alternative to pasta, so I like to use it to shake up my routine. I especially love the contrast of the bright, smooth, melt-in-your-mouth polenta, a sprinkling of rich, nutty parmesan cheese and a twist of black pepper against fresh crisp vegetables and tangy tomato sauce. I’m also amazed that it’s only three ingredients — stone-ground Hodgson Mill Corn Meal, water, and salt — I thought there must be something more to it. I was wrong. Deliciously wrong.
This will be a pictorial lesson, thanks to my good friend Kevin Good, who took these gorgeous photos. Thanks Kevin!
Step one: Get that water boiling. Cover the pot, walk away for a little bit. Once you’ve got a good boil on, reduce heat to simmer and add salt.
Step two: Start stirring, and add the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream. Stir as you add it, since this helps keep lumps from forming. You can use your hands like I did, or use a spouted bowl or measuring cup.
Don’t stress about small lumps – keep stirring and slowly adding steady streams of cornmeal. The water will get saturated eventually and the mixture will thicken just fine, with lumps dissolving over the heat.
Step three: Keep stirring.
Step four: Keep stirring.
Step five: Keep stirring frequently–once a minute or so, or more if you hear it bubbling. If you have a friend or a helper in the kitchen who can handle it, it’s nice for them to spell you. After about 15-18 minutes, you also need to start paying attention to the consistency. It will start out as a liquid, but get progressively thicker.
Keep an eye out for these signs that you’re done:
a) You can see the bottom of the pot for a few moments when you draw your spoon across the diameter of the bowl (the “red sea effect”).
b) The mixture is noticeably thicker, with big thick ripples as you stir.
c) The polenta sticks to the spoon more, and as the mixture nears completion, you might have to bang your spoon on the side of the pot to clean it off. Little pieces that fall off the spoon also tend to keep their shape when they land back in the pot.
Step six: When you see these signs– and decide your arm has had enough– empty the whole caboodle into a big flat pan (like a jelly roll pan). My polenta took twenty minutes to cook, from the time I started adding cornmeal until I turned off the heat.
It would’ve been handy to have someone to hold the pot while scraping the hot mixture into the finishing pan. It’s doable alone, just be prepared. I now have an honorary associates’ degree in hot pan juggling.
Step seven: Working quickly, dip your fingers or a smooth spoon or spatula into cold water. With your utensil of choice, pat the polenta into a flat, even sheet one to two inches thick.
Re-dip fingers or utensil often, every 2-3 pats; (especially if using your hands!)
This recipe makes A LOT of polenta; it looks like it’s got to be at least ten servings, but I also spread mine on the thin side: about 3/4″ – 1″ thick. I think the number of servings also depends on what you serve with it. A hearty meat sauce on top, or a nice veggie mixture, like I chose, not to mention a salad on the side, will probably fill you up a bit more than just polenta squares, tomato sauce and cheese.
Since this recipe makes so much polenta, I had leftovers. I stacked the polenta squares, separated with waxed paper, in sealable storage containers and placed them in the refridgerator. I’m also trying a couple of ideas for reheating, which I’ll try to post later. Microwaving worked all right; and pan-frying was interesting . . .I’d love to know if someone has a suggestion!
Last but not least, I wanted to point out that my polenta is pictured with a saucy version of Ratatouille a la Smitten Kitchen (Which is based on Pixar’s movie, Ratatouille, which makes me love it even more). It was a super-handy accompaniment since it cooks in about the same amount of time as the polenta. I love finding recipes that dovetail together so neatly!
To make both simultaneously, you can follow this process: turn on the polenta water on the stove to boil, and preheat the oven. While the oven heats up, you can slice the veggies, arrange them in the pan, and then slide them right into the hot oven. Then start the stovetop polenta and you’ll have it done just as the ratatouille comes out. Boom! Fresh summer harvest for dinner.
Other topping suggestions? I had a great dish of polenta topped with just a spicy Italian sausage and plenty of parmesan cheese. Another favorite I’ve had is marinated Portobello mushrooms that were sliced and sautéed with garlic and rosemary. Do you have other topping suggestions to share?
Easy Homemade Polenta
Bring water to a boil in large heavy pot. Once boiling, add salt and reduce heat until water is simmering. Add cornmeal to water very slowly, controlling the flow to a thin stream through your fingers or from a spouted bowl or measuring cup. To avoid lumps, stir quickly with a long handled wooden spoon while adding cornmeal. If necessary, stop adding cornmeal from time to time and beat mixture vigorously to break up any clumps that form. Cook, stirring frequently, for 15-20 minutes. Polenta will become very thick while cooking. It‘s finished when the polenta comes away cleanly from the sides of the pot, or when you draw a spoon through the mixture and you can see the bottom of the pot for several seconds before the polenta comes back together.
Pour polenta onto a large wooden board or large flat pan, such as a jelly roll pan. Wet a smooth utensil or your hands and flatten out polenta evenly, about 1-2 inches thick. Let cool 5 to 10 minutes, or just until solidified. Cut cooled polenta into slices or slabs, and using a server or spatula, place slices in individual dishes. Serve hot, with toppings of your choice.
Refrigerate in a sealed container for up to 3 days. Do not stack squares directly on top of one another, as polenta will stick together–use plastic wrap, waxed paper, or parchment paper.
Makes 8-10 servings.