Polenta, Information, Preparation, and Tips
Polenta is one of the most basic corn based foods in existence. Its simplicity (cornmeal cooked until tender) and versatility makes it one of the best choices to express healthy culinary creativity. Many cooks however, struggle with making a smooth, well cooked polenta and end up with lumpy, or undercooked mixtures
Polenta can be made from any type of cornmeal from coarse to finely milled varieties. Different types of cornmeal, white, yellow, blue, all can be used to make the base for a polenta. There really is no trick to the dish, a perfect polenta just requires a little knowledge of the technique and a clear vision for the dish.
When making polenta, choosing the proper type of cornmeal to suit your application is important. Fine ground cornmeal will create a more dense, pudding style dish while a coarse ground cornmeal will lead to a still tender polenta but one with a varied texture. The coarse ground cornmeal is the style that is used in traditional italian cooking. All you need for the most basic polenta is water, cornmeal and salt.
The equipment you need is simple, a large heavy bottomed pot, a whisk, and a wooden spoon. The pot should have a thick bottom, to prevent the polenta from burning during the cooking process.
The ratio for polenta is simple, start with 4 cups of water to 1 cup of cornmeal. Milk can be substituted for water for a richer polenta (see: more calories), I typically used 2 cups of milk (whole milk) and 2 cups of water.
Add your liquid and salt heat oon medium and add the cornmeal. Add it all at once, and use the whisk to break up the large clumps of cornmeal as the polenta cooks. The cornmeal typically takes 20 minutes to fully cook, and should be tender when you taste, and not gritty or hard. Stir, stir, stir, turing over the bottom which can burn and ruin your polenta very easily.
When cooking polenta you have to stir and whisk often. The cornmeal will tend to clump or harden at the bottom of the pot keeping the mixture moving prevents this and creates a more tender dish.
The cornmeal will set as it cools. The thicker you make the polenta, the more firm it will be once you serve it. A thick polenta can be poured into a pan, cooled or stored in the refridgerator and cut into bricks or cakes for frying, broiling, baking or grilling. Thin polenta will resemble a pudding or mashed potatoes and can be served as a side, or as part of a dish.
There are an incredible number of polenta recipes, many of which involve adding cheese, meat, or vegetables during the cooking process. Basic flavors coming from onions, olive oils, herbs or strong cheese make polenta a great vegetarian option. The trick to making many of these dishes is to simply time the addition of your ingredients to enhance the polentas texture, and not overcook them and have the flavors be lost in the process.
After you make polenta a few times you will grasp how the cornmeal cooks. Once you understand how long it takes until the meal is tender and which type of cornmeal you prefer (I like coarse ground) timing the addition of ingredients is easy. Vegetables should be added with about 5 to 10 minutes left in the cooking process, cheeses should be added within the last 5 minutes of cooking, meats in the last 2 to 3 minutes, garlic and onions can be sweated or cooked in butter or oil before the liquid is added and herbs can be added as soon as the polenta begins to absorb water.
When cooking polenta for the second time, be sure to grease / oil the pan you use, and let it get hot before cooking to prevent the polenta from sticking. Understand as well,that as it is heated, the polenta will loosen up and become less firm, meaning a once firm polenta can collapse when hot if you rest your meat or vegtables directly on it.