Today I am happy to share with you a guest post by Ian from Modern Kitchen Craft. Ian is a professional chef who also shares pro tips for home cooking on his blog. He shares his knowledge and best advices to make cooking fun and not a chore. Today he is talking about polenta: so we can all become polenta masters! Yeah! Enjoy!
Allow me to tell you a quick story about a situation I recently found myself in.
I am the executive chef of a prestigious private east coast university. My job every day is to make sure that the thousands of students that eat on campus find just what they want to eat. Recently, we hosted 600 or so prospective students and their families as you can imagine, the logistics of feeding so many people can become pretty complex. And sometimes we don’t get it quite right, and we run out of things.
Before I continue, let me also explain that I have set a goal for my team to “Make vegetarians and vegans rave about the food”. You’ve probably experienced that vegetarians and vegans are an underserved market often offered some sort of pasta dish or a collection of side dishes scrounged from the corners of the menu. I wanted to change that, I wanted to make my vegan and vegetarian students love the food so much, that they literally told everyone about it.
That’s why I was so frustrated when we ran out of the vegetarian entree with 150 or so guests left to feed. Even though I was frustrated, I knew just what to do. I knew that there was a vegetarian entree that is filling, easy to make very quickly, and so versatile that I was almost guaranteed to have everything I needed in stock to pull it off. And the best part? It’s so delicious and so eagerly received, that the guests raved about it.
Of course I’m talking about polenta. I bet most of you reading this know what polenta is, you’ve been served it, made it for yourself, or you’ve seen it on menus. For those of you reading that have no idea what it is, allow me to quickly explain. Polenta is a close relative of grits, but not quite the same (grits are made using hominy, which is a corn product which has undergone a different process than cornmeal). It’s usually made by cooking cornmeal in a hot liquid like stock or milk. It’s traditionally loaded with parmesan cheese and served with a variety of toppings.
In this article, I would like to show you how easy it is to prepare polenta, and how versatile the dish can be. My goal is for you to be able to prepare polenta without a recipe so that it can be your “goto” dish for something fast, delicious, and hot.
There are three major components to polenta
- The hot liquid. My preference is for milk, but you can also use vegetable stock
- Corn Meal. There are some products out there that are called “Polenta” but trust me,basic cornmeal is all you need.
- Cheese. Parmesan is traditional, but I’m going to show you that that is not how it has tobe.
In addition to these ingredients there are a host of other bonus ingredients you can add, I’m talking about:
- Lemon Juice
- Dried Fruits
- Brown Sugar
While we are listing things, let’s list some of the cheeses you can put in (the answer is anything,but here are some examples):
- Blue Cheese
- Mascarpone (Dessert Polenta?)
- Smoked Gouda
- Goat Cheese (Yum!)
And what about toppings? Polenta is just the base for your dish, but that’s not where it ends Flavorful toppings are where it’s really at. For example, I’ve included a recipe below for a veggie ragout (The same one I served in a pinch to the visiting students). Other options include a broccoli, garlic and olive oil saute. I could have done a creamy mushroom stroganoff with rosemary. Olives, portobello mushrooms and tomato. How about roasted fennel, asparagus and peas?
Polenta can be sweet too You can try mixing in mascarpone cheese, brown sugar and dried fruit. Then top it with granola, sliced almonds and a dollop of vanilla yogurt. You can stir in brie, then make a streusel topping and bake it in the oven, top it with raspberry jam like a baked oatmeal meets and baked brie.
I hope you can see by now how versatile polenta can be. Once you start combining ingredients, the sky’s the limit. So how do you go about deciding what to make? Try asking yourself these questions: Is it for breakfast, lunch, or dinner? or maybe a snack?
There are a ton of savory applications for polenta, and those are pretty appropriate for lunch and dinner. Tomatoes, garlic, Veggies, fresh herbs, spices, and your stronger flavored cheeses lend themselves very well to savory applications
For breakfast and snacks, consider a sweet version stick to neutral creamy cheeses like mascarpone, ricotta and cream cheese. Make sure to add brown sugar or honey and top it with your favorite crunchies granola, toasted nuts, seeds etc.
What’s in the fridge? (or garden, or farmers market, grocery store, etc)
Use what’s around you for inspiration, most seasonal ingredients are traditionally served together. Imagine: Spring Roasted Fennel, Asparagus and peas, ricotta or goat cheese in the polenta. Summer Parmesan polenta with vegetable ragout (like below) Fall Blue cheese or Smoked Gouda polenta with caramelized acorn squash or pumpkin, brown sugar and toasted pumpkin seeds. Winter A savory application like Fontina cheese with mushroom stroganoff and rosemary, or sweet application with brown sugar and strawberry preserves.
We’ve gotten this far, and I haven’t even told you HOW to make polenta. I hope by now I have you excited for the end result now let me explain how to get there.
Let me start by saying that I have included a recipe with exact measurements for your liquid and corn meal. Feel free to use the recipe the first or second time eventually you want to be able to pull this off without measuring.
Here are the steps to making a soft polenta:
- Add your liquid to the pot and turn the heat on medium
- When the liquid begins to steam, add the cornmeal (a little at a time if you aren’tmeasuring)
- Use a whisk to stir the polenta at first, and when it begins to thicken, use a woodenspoon (I have a dedicated wooden spoon just for polenta and risotto)
- The polenta will get steamy and hot, it takes a few minutes for the cornmeal to swell toits maximum potential, so after every addition of cornmeal, give it some time to cook.
- The consistency you are looking for is something like a porridge, loose oatmeal, creamof wheat etc.
- When you have the correct consistency, add in your cheese and stir.
- Sweet or savory I recommend the following three ingredients every single time: LemonJuice, Salt, Butter. These three ingredients will make your polenta really explode with flavorNotes:
- Add fresh herbs at the end of the process, ditto for brown sugar or honey
- Add dried fruits in with the cheese and allow them to cook for a while to soften
You can see that polenta is one of the most versatile dishes you can have in your arsenal. It’s simple and quick to make and can incorporate ingredients that are easily found at home. Soft polenta is only half of the story though You can make firm polenta too. Firm polenta is cake like and is great for grilling or pan roasting. We can explore all of the wonderful variations of firm polenta in a future post.
Now it’s your turn, tell me what you’re going to put in your polenta in the comments section below!
Parmesan Polenta with Vegetable Ragout
1 Medium Sized Zucchini Diced 1⁄2 Medium Sized Eggplant Diced 1⁄2 Cup of onion Small Dice
3 Cloves Garlic Sliced
12 oz can of diced tomatoes
1⁄2 tsp dried basil
Olive Oil (As Needed)
S&P To Taste
- In a saute pan, heat up a few tablespoons of olive oil (or canola if you don’t have olive).Add the first four ingredients and saute. (See Note!)
- After the vegetables have begun to break down and take on some color add yourtomatoes
- Add the canned diced tomatoes (or, if you prefer, fresh diced tomatoes), Dried basil (Seenote!) and season with salt and pepper
- Eggplant is a sponge and will suck up all of the oil right away. The pan will be dry and itwill be difficult to cook. HOWEVER avoid the temptation to add a ton of oil, because once the eggplant cooks, it will break down and release all of the oil it sucked up! I suggest adding just enough oil to the pan as everything cooks, so that nothing scorches. Also, Using olive oil ensures that even if you add too much, it will still be good for you.
- I use dried herbs for applications like this especially basil which has such a delicate flavor. Dried herbs infuse the food with a deep flavor and can be added at the beginning of cooking. Fresh herbs like basil should be added at the end of cooking, and the flavor will tend to get lost after a while.
3 C. Milk
1⁄2 C. Corn Meal
1⁄2 C. Grated Parmesan Cheese 2 Tbsp Butter
Lemon Juice (To Taste) Salt (To Taste)
- Heat the milk until it is steamy
- Add most of the cornmeal, but reserve a little just in case
- Stir the mixture until the cornmeal has thickened add more cornmeal if it is too thin, addmore milk if it is too thick. Making it thicker is always easier than thinner
- Stir in your parmesan cheese and butter
- Season to taste with lemon juice and salt
- Spoon the polenta onto a plate or bowl and top with the ragout
- Top with freshly grated parmesan cheese, fresh chopped basil.
- Serve with crusty bread, a light salad and your favorite red wine