If you’ve never heard of it before, polenta is basically a fancy corn mush similar to the southern staple known as grits. Made with inexpensive, household cornmeal, polenta is a great example of how easy it is to cook with grains. It doesn’t take long to prepare, and even better yet, you probably already have cornmeal in your pantry. As with most other grains, the basic cooking premise involves boiling the grain in water or other liquid – a task that a cook of any ability level can handle.
While there is pre-made polenta for sale in tubes in the grocery stores, there is really no need to go that route when the cooking process is this simple. Start with the basic recipe, then adapt depending upon what you intend to serve it with. Here, I use it as I might pasta – with some Parmesan added in and topped with a crushed tomato sauce and sautéed kale.
The key to a great polenta, or any grain, the dish is to use it as the base on which to highlight things such as a nice cut of meat, seasonal vegetables, or even fresh fruit. I’ve seen polenta used in many ways – as the pasta base in a lasagna, mixed with pumpkin puree and served with pork, and even flavored with a little maple syrup and topped with berries as a breakfast dish. Once you get the hang of this simple base recipe, try getting more creative.
- 1/2 cup milk
- 1 cup coarse cornmeal
- 1 tablespoon butter
- freshly grated Parmesan cheese (optional)
- freshly ground black pepper
Combine the milk with 2 cups water and a pinch of salt in a medium saucepan over medium heat. Barely bring to a boil, then add the cornmeal, whisking to prevent lumps from forming. Turn the heat to low and simmer while whisking on and off, until thick, 10 to 15 minutes. Add in more water if it gets too thick. Add in the butter and Parmesan if using.
- Mixing in chopped fresh herbs like rosemary and sage and adding in minced garlic
- Pouring into a pan, letting cool for ten minutes, cut into slices and grilling or pan-frying with a little oil
For the quick tomato sauce:
In a small saucepan over medium heat, cook one clove minced garlic with a pinch of red pepper flakes in two tablespoons of olive oil for thirty seconds. Add in one chopped onion and two tablespoons of finely chopped fresh oregano. Cook until soft – 5 minutes or so. Pour two cups of crushed tomatoes into the pan with a large pinch of salt. Stir, bring to a boil, and turn the heat down to low. Simmer for 10 minutes. Mix in a small bunch of fresh, roughly torn basil and 1/4 cup chopped parsley, and you’re good to go.