Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Round Corners


Yay! It snowed over the week-end, just a little wee bit, but enough to lift the doom and gloom from my soul.  The sun even made a showing to shed a little light in a few dark recesses. Nevertheless, I am still on a comfort-food buzz, and hankering for something soft and creamy, smooth and enveloping. Tout en rondeur as the French say. I've reached my saturation point for mac and cheese, so I'm moving on to another favourite: polenta!


The first time I heard about polenta, it sounded so complicated and time-consuming to make (one hour of constant stirring, turning only in one direction with a wooden spoon...), yet fascinating all at once. Turns out, polenta is really easy-peasy to make. Polenta is basically an Italian corn mush -I know, doesn't sound too appealing in those terms, but that's exactly what it is- made with cornmeal or grit, instead of fresh corn (like its South American counterparts). You can buy imported polenta meal, but locally produced cornmeal is a perfectly acceptable substitute: while a coarse meal (corn grits) is closest to authentic, I prefer fine to medium grind cornmeals because the results are smoother, creamier, and cook in half the time.


My favourite use for polenta is as a creamy medium for saucy dishes like a goulash; smothered under a chunky tomato sauce; or even on its own with a sprinkling of cheese. However, you can also let it set in an oiled container; cut into wedges or slabs, dredge in a little flour, and pan-fry the polenta, you will have the best of two worlds: crispy brown the outside, and creamy-runny on the inside. Or better yet, make a double batch, enjoy part as a creamy sauce mop, and the rest as a crispy side dish. 


Creamy Polenta
Serves 2 to 3 as a side dish

2 Tbs butter or oil
½ cup/ 85g medium or fine cornmeal
2½-3 cups/ 500-750ml milk or water, or a combination of both
salt and pepper

Melt butter (or heat oil) over medium-high heat.
Add cornmeal, stir with a whisk to get everything coated with butter.
Toast the grits until a few of the grains begin to colour.
Pour milk or water gradually while whisking constantly to prevent lumps.
When the polenta starts bubbling, lower heat to medium-low.
Let simmer gently, stirring from time to time, for about 15-20 minutes.
Check the seasoning. 
The polenta is cooked when the grains are no longer gritty. Aim for the consistency of loose porridge: add more liquid if it is too thick, or cook for a while longer if the polenta is too runny.
Serve immediately, or leave to set for at least two hours before cutting into slabs, and frying.


Occasionally, the polenta will not set hard enough to cut cleanly, when that happens, you can either cook it down until it reaches the consistency of stiff oatmeal, or you can freeze it before slicing it. If you aren't in the mood to fry the left-overs, polenta can easily be re-heated to its creamy goodness over gentle heat, you might need to add a drop of milk or water to help it along. I go through single food kicks, and can be perfectly satisfied with a bowl of polenta for dinner, but I know that not everyone has my unique eating habits. Even though creamy polenta is plenty liquid in and of itself, it is the perfect foil for any saucy dish: it will soak up all the run-offs from your main course, whether a gorgeous roast, a divine stew, or lovely vegetables (especially leafy greens). Consider it an alternative to good old reliable mash.

Bon app'!




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