Polenta

An exchange in my office lunchroom:
“Wow, what smells so good?”
“My polenta.”
“What’s polenta?”
“Cornmeal mush! Doesn’t that sound great?!”

Polenta is popular. You can get it in a tube or in quick-cooking versions now, but it’s easy to make yourself and you have ingredient flexibility if you do – you can add fresh herbs, garlic, & different cheeses to arrive at an end result that’s unlike the dull tubular stuff. I don’t limit polenta to a traditional tomato-sauce topping – it can be good friends with sautéed greens, spicy black beans and salsa, or just a big pile of steamed broccoli. This recipe makes a massive amount – feel free to cut it in half if you don’t need a massive amount. I tend to make a lot at a time because I like it both soft and solidified – some now and some later. If you want to serve the solidified polenta slices, you need to start the process the day before or at least early the day you want to serve them. I suggest an unconventional soaking technique – I’ve found that it cuts the stovetop cooking time by better than half and the polenta also sticks a lot less, which is otherwise a problem. The difference between 50 and 20 minutes over a pot alone is pretty dramatic on a weeknight, even if it didn’t result in stick-reduction. Just measure out the polenta and water when you pour your cereal in the morning and you’ll be all set when you get home.

Combine in a large bowl and let soak for several hours:

2 c. Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits – Polenta (you can find it on the baking aisle of a good supermarket, Whole Foods, or health food store – you can also use coarse-ground cornmeal, which is whole grain, as opposed to polenta, which is degerminated)
2 c. water

Heat in a large, deep saucepan: (seriously deep – polenta boils like a mud pit)

2 T. butter or olive oil

Add:

1 large onion, chopped fine
some chili flakes
and sauté until the onion is translucent and starting to brown slightly. Pour in the soaked polenta and its soaking water, and add 4 c. water. Bring to a boil and then reduce to a simmer. Cook, stirring frequently to prevent sticking, until the polenta is thick and the water has been largely absorbed – about 20 minutes. In the meantime, grate:
2 c. Dry Jack or other cheese (Parmigiano-Reggiano, other Italians, Swisses, Cheddars, goat, blue, all fine. Goat or blue will require less volume of cheese, obviously. I use Dry Jack because it’s made with vegetable rennet.)

Remove the polenta from the heat and add the cheese, plus pepper and salt to taste. It will need plenty of both. If it doesn’t taste like anything, keep salting and peppering until it does. Serve hot.

To make polenta slices, spread the finished soft polenta evenly in a baking sheet with a rim. Place in the refrigerator for a few hours or overnight. It will harden into a sheet that can be sliced. Slice it and broil it bottom side up first, on a greased cookie sheet until it’s spotted with brown. Then flip it over and broil the other side.

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