Wednesday, October 27, 2010

Creamy Polenta

Tired of potatoes at every meal? Sick of rice? Giving pasta a break? How about giving polenta a try?

Polenta's an easy side and is so very versatile. It can be creamy like potatoes or firm like bread. You can cut it into shapes and use it instead of crackers, and eat it hot or cold. Like gravy or risotto, it can seem off-putting and scary to make, but in truth it's really very easy.

To start, you need some liquid. The ratio of polenta to liquid is 1:4 (that is, one part polenta, four parts liquid.) If you're planning on slicing your polenta later and want something more firm, then 1:3 would be a better bet. But today I'm serving it under pot roast, so I want it to be creamy and smooth.

Measure your liquid out and pour it into a large pot (a larger pot than you think you'll need. Polenta expands quite a bit and you don't want a burned polenta mess on your hands!) I used half chicken broth and half water, but you'd be fine using all broth or all water. Turn on your stove; you'll want to get a nice simmer.

Next, measure your polenta.

Polenta is just another name for ground corn. I'm using a coarser grind but you could use plain old cornmeal, too.

Here's polenta next to everyday cornmeal (don't adjust your computer's monitor, it's white cornmeal!) You can see that the regular cornmeal is a lot finer and more evenly ground.

Now would be a good time to get your add-ins read, too. I'm going to flavor my polenta tonight with parmesan cheese. Really, any cheese would be good here. Goat cheese is really nice, but cheddar adds a nice, heavy flavor (and you get those great strings of cheese when you spoon it!)

You could use all sorts of things to flavor your polenta. Making a southwestern dish? Try roasted chilis and cheddar cheese! Maybe some roasted corn or rinsed black beans would round out the flavors. And top it with cilantro!

Going more Italian? Parm and sundried tomatoes sound pretty good. Maybe throw in some olives, roasted red pepper, or roasted garlic, too? And give it a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil before diving in!

Want a hearty vegetarian dish? Roasted or grilled vegetables would make this taste great! Stir in some silken tofu instead of the cheese if you're going completely vegan.

Serving breakfast instead of dinner? What better way to wake up than with polenta studded with scrambled eggs, cheese, and sausage?

Polenta's a pretty clean slate. Just about anything you could think of would make it taste good.

Anyway, back to actually making the polenta. I plunk a knob of butter on top of my bowl of cheese, just so it's within easy reach.

Hey, the broth and water are simmering! Get a whisk and slowly start pouring the polenta in. Be sure to stir a lot! Lots and lots of stirring will make sure your polenta isn't lumpy. Feel free to take a break from pouring to give the polenta some extra stirs, if you need to.

Once the polenta has soaked up all the liquid, you can throw in your butter.

Now switch to a spoon and turn your heat to low. Let the polenta bubble away, stirring frequently.

Don't forget the salt and pepper!

Here's what it looks like after about 15 minutes.

I let my polenta go for half an hour. The longer you cook it, the creamier it will get. Ideally I would have gone 45+ minutes, but I was in a hurry. My pot roast was done!

I added some half and half for some richness.

I also added the cheese from before.

I stirred things around and let it cook for a few more minutes. Then it was ready to serve!

I topped it with my pot roast. The perfect accompaniment! Because, you know, it's all about the polenta, right? The pot roast is just a great side dish ;)

Recipe: Creamy Polenta

4 c. liquid (water, broth, etc.)
1 c. polenta

1 1/2 tbsp. butter
salt and pepper, to taste

1/4 c. half and half
3/4 c. cheese (parmesan, cheddar, etc.)

In a large pot, heat liquid to a rolling simmer.

Slowly whisk polenta into simmering liquid, stirring rapidly to prevent lumps.

Once polenta has absorbed the water, decrease heat to low. Add butter. Let polenta cook slowly, stirring frequently. Add salt and pepper.

After 30 minutes (minimum), add half and half and cheese. Stir, and then serve.

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