Monday, February 27, 2012

Polenta! Simple, not easy. OK maybe easy.

 "Thee the soft nations round the warm Levant
Palanta call, the French of course Polante;
E'en in thy native regions how I blush
To hear the Pennsylvanians call thee Mush!
On Hudson's banks, while men of Belgic spawn
Insult and eat thee by the name suppawn.
All spurious appellations; void of truth:
I've better known thee from my earliest youth,
Thy name is Hasty-Pudding!

The Hasty-Pudding, Joel Barlow, 1793
You know that game, Othello? No, not the Shakespeare play... the game. It's tagline is "A minute to learn, a lifetime to master"

A lot of things fall into this category. Watercolors, planting things, doing cartwheels. And, making polenta. I mean, how hard can something with about 3 ingredients be? And at its simplest, you could make this with only 2: water and corn meal.  Of course, generations of polenta makers would shake their heads at me for saying so.  They learned over the course of centuries that this simple concept - boiled corn meal - can take so many forms.  Soft, rich mush can be served with savory dishes like sausages.  Mix it with sugar, milk, vanilla and cinnamon and you've got a Latin breakfast porridge.  Spread it out in a flat pan, let it solidify and either pour maple syrup on it like they do in the midwest, or serve with pasta sauce, cheese and herbs like they do in Italy.  It's like a food canvas! 

I've been a bit nervous about using polenta even so, because I'm never sure about whether the grain is cross-contaminated with others.  It's the old shared-equipment quandry.  Was it ground on equipment as wheat?  nuts?  other scary things?   One never knows for sure.  But if you can find a good brand*, or know that the brand only does corn ... well, then this is the food for you.  Easy, fast, and a little goes a long way.  It's a simple to enjoy starchy part of a wider meal.  It can be used as part of the main dish, or sliced in little bars for a quick carry-around finger food snack.  And, well, it's yummy.  

For kids, these are so versatile. Cut in squares or little bars and they're easy finger food for on the go.  Cut with cookie cutters for fun shaped plates at home.  Make them sweet or savory, dip in sweet sauces or ketchup.  (yes, my friends, ketchup). 

One of my favorite versions of this is the Italian style polenta squares.  Cornmeal, cheese, oil, and herbs spread out into a pan, then cut into squares and served with pasta sauce.  I also like the squares fried in butter, but I try not to think about that too much. 

Simple, yes, but not as easy as it seems at first.   Deceptively simple.  Add cornmeal to boiling water, stir, and it's done.  Right?

But if you add the cornmeal directly into the hot water without stirring, you get lumps of half-dry goo.  If you don't stir like crazy, you get lumps. It burns and spatters.  It dries out on the pan to the consistency of cement.  Oy. 
There are a couple tricks.  The best one that I've ever read was on's recipe.  Put the cornmeal in some cold water first and stir it up before you add it to the boiling water.  It's the same principle as adding flour to cold water before adding it to gravy to avoid lumps. 

So, my basic recipe:

3:1 Water to Cornmeal

For this example:
2/3 cup corn meal,
2 1/4 water
2/3 cup of cheddar-style Daiya cheese

Put 2/3 of the water into a pan and begin to boil
Meanwhile, pour the cornmeal into the rest of the water, and stir it up until smooth.


Once the water's boiling, add the cornmeal & water mix in while stirring, stirring, stirring.  Keep stirring until the mixture become more and more solid, a couple minutes.

Add anything else you want to add (cheese and herbs, or sugar, vanilla, cinnamon and milk) 
Here, I'm using non-dairy Daiya cheddar style cheese. Turn off the heat and keep stirring.  

Pour onto an oiled or non-stick bar pan and spread out evenly -- a casserole dish, brownie pan, whatever you have that's flat with edges.

Cover the pan with something, be it plastic or a lid of some sort and refrigerate until firm.  Cut into whatever shapes you like! 

If you would like an even cheesier version, cover with another 2/3 cup of cheese and put in the broiler for a few minutes. 

* Bob's Red Mill has a gluten-free cornmeal.  Here, though, I used fine cornmeal from our local latin store and it appears to be fine - no reactions, no nothing! 
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