Besides pasta, one of Italy's favorite dishes is polenta, especially in the northern part of the country. Made of cornmeal, polenta has experienced a steady rise in popularity, being featured on restaurant menus worldwide and enjoying a delicious array of creative variations from professional and home cooks alike. Polenta is super easy to make, can be combined with almost anything, and is extremely cheap (notably, it was once a peasant food). Here are some cooking tips and polenta recipes so you can roll up your sleeves and get to stirring!
Cooking tips for perfect polenta
Polenta tip #1: Start with the basics
All you really need to make good basic polenta is yellow cornmeal (that is fine to medium-grained), water and salt. A flavored stock or broth can be used in place of water, and butter can be added for a richer flavor.
Polenta tip #2: Consider the consistency
To make a softer polenta, the ratio of water to polenta should be about 3 to 1. For a firmer polenta, use less water. Instant polenta is available, but it will not turn out as tasty and creamy.
Polenta tip #3: Be creative
Let your imagination go wild when deciding what flavors to add or serve with polenta. Consider various cheeses, vegetables (peas, eggplant, zucchini, mushrooms, or others), fresh shaved truffles (or truffle oil or truffle butter), meat (especially short ribs or pork), shrimp (similar to shrimp and grits), or just simply butter or a good quality olive oil.
Polenta tip #4: Cook simply
All you need is a large pot and a wooden spoon. In Italy, a large copper pot known as a paiolo is used, but isn't necessary to make good polenta. Any stockpot will do – the heavier the better. The other most important piece of equipment is your wooden spoon. Similar to risotto, polenta requires a lot of stirring to smooth lumps and avoid burning, so you want to use a long-handled wooden spoon to keep your hands away from the flame and bubbling hot polenta.
Polenta tip #5: Try slow-cooker polenta
The traditional way to prepare polenta is to boil it in water or stock until it thickens. But if time is an issue, you can use a slow-cooker. Just add the water and cornmeal to a slow-cooker and let it cook on low heat for about 6 hours, stirring every hour or so. If you want to cook it overnight, cook on low for 4 to 5 hours and then set the slow-cooker to warm for the remaining time until ready to eat. Slow-cooker polenta may just be the creamiest you will ever taste. As a rule, the longer it cooks, the creamier it will be.
Polenta tip #6: Serve it many ways
Polenta can be served either soft or in a firmer cake-like form. To make it firmer, all you have to do is pour the prepared polenta into a cake pan or bread pan and let it cool. It will naturally firm up. Either way you decide to prepare it, polenta can be served as a side dish or a main course. The creamy grain can also be topped with any number of sauces, meats, cheeses or herbs. Polenta fries (recipe on the next page) have also become very popular and taste great with a mayonnaise-based dipping sauce.
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