Polenta (AKA Cornmeal Grits)

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Shrimp and Grits Craggie on Main Polenta (AKA Cornmeal Grits)

I’m a sucker for polenta (AKA grits). No matter what other fabulous dishes a menu is featuring on any given night, if I spot polenta or grits, that’s the dish I order. That’s what happened at Craigie on Main in Cambridge recently. And it was breakfast no less. But just look at the dish above, and I’m sure you’ll agree I would have been out of my mind to order anything else.

Polenta is basically a thick cornmeal mush (although culinary goddess, Marcella Hazan, calls this description an  indelicate use of the English language), which is either served hot and creamy from the pot with a sauce of some type or shaped and left to cool, then later sliced and fried, baked, or grilled. 

Polenta is a specialty of Northern Italy, in particular the provinces of Friuli, Emilia Romagna, Lombardy, and Veneto. The rest of Italy hardly uses corn at all, and in fact there is the general attitude in the south that corn is fit only for the feeding of pigs. Be that as it may, America loves corn and has taken to polenta with a passion.

Grits are likewise a thick cornmeal mush, but the dish originated with Native Americans. Today, the Southern United States is Grits country.

Product Polenta (AKA Cornmeal Grits)

In California, as early as 1985, I began to note the inclusion of polenta on New American Cuisine restaurant menus of that time. The name “corncakes” was in fashion then, however. Today, it’s polenta or grits. And not many menus seem overly particular about the naming distinction between the two dishes.

To be nit-picky, Polenta is made from coarsely ground whole yellow corn. Grits are made from less coarsely ground (usually) whole white corn or white corn kernels (hominy). Grits cook faster than polenta because of the finer grind and are usually very creamy, almost porridge-like. Polenta tends to be a bit more toothsome and is often served firm and fried.

Polenta into the stock Polenta (AKA Cornmeal Grits)

Whatever you call it, this simple, homey dish is altogether comforting and irresistible.   

Depending on what you sauce or layer the polenta with, it can be either a straight-forward unassuming dish or an almost sophisticated one. It can be served right from the pot in a hot, steamy mound or allowed to cool and harden, then sliced into slabs. In the latter case, the polenta is often layered in a casserole with a sauce and cheese, although it can also be simply grilled or fried. 

Polenta texture Polenta (AKA Cornmeal Grits)

In the northern provinces of Friuli and Veneto, grilled or broiled slices of polenta accompany the main course in place of bread. In American restaurants, polenta or grits is often served as the starch component of a composed plate, under or alongside the meat.  

To vary the color and texture, fine, medium, coarse, yellow, white, or blue cornmeal can be used, and in fact, other grains altogether, such as buckwheat or barley, can be treated to the same cooking method to produce different flavor profiles. Although many recipes for polenta specify cooking the cornmeal in water, excellent results can also be obtained by using stock, milk, some cream, or even some wine.

Just look at the dish below photographed this past Fall at Cowboy Ciao in Scottsdale. Grilled polenta triangles are smothered in the most delectable wild mushroom sauce imaginable and topped with  a sprinkling of avocado and diced tomato. I thought I’d died and gone to polenta heaven.

Cowboy Ciao Wild Mushroom Polenta  Polenta (AKA Cornmeal Grits)

Basic Polenta

There are two tricks to this basic polenta. The first is to add the cornmeal grits to cold liquid. This ensures that the grits do not clump when you add them. The second is to use a deep stockpot and the longest handled wooden spoon you can find. Polenta spatters as it cooks, and it is very easy to get burnt with hot globs flying out of the pot. Stand back from the pot, and let the long handled wooden spoon take the heat.

When it comes to which liquid to use, I prefer stock with a bit of cream. But some chefs make a strong case for using water rather than stock, as then nothing interferes with the flavor of the corn. I almost always add cheese as well, but rarely add butter. These choices, however, are all yours.

6 cups cold water, stock, or milk, approximately  
2 cups coarsely ground corn grits (cornmeal will also work but won’t be as toothsome)
fine sea salt, to taste
optional: ½-1 cup cream (in place of equal amount of stock)
optional: 4-8 tablespoons unsalted butter (herb butters can be wonderful)
optional: ½-¾ cups grated Parmesan  or other cheese of choice

  1. Fill a deep stockpot with your liquid of choice. While the liquid is still cold (room temperature is fine as well), slowly sprinkle on the grits, stirring all the while.
  2. Bring the liquid to a boil, stirring constantly (but no need to work too hard at this) with a long handled wooden spoon.
  3. Add salt to taste and butter or cream if using. 
  4. Cook slowly for 20-30 minutes, stirring slowly but rather steadily. 
  5. When done, the polenta should be thick, smooth, and soft, and should tear away from the sides of the pot as you stir. You can test the set by spooning a large dollop on a plate. It should mound rather than flatten on the plate. If the mixture is becoming too thick, and grits are not yet tender, add additional liquid, in ½ cup increments as needed.
  6. Finish by folding in the Parmesan (or other cheese), if using. 
  7. Now, do ONE of the following. (If you choose the second, third, or fourth option, you will then need to saute, grill, or bake the cooled polenta before serving. Several suggestions are below.)
  • Pour onto a large platter, make an indent in the center of the mound, top with sauce of your choice and grated cheese, and serve immediately.
  • Pour into an oiled, edged baking sheet or baking pan and spread to an even depth of 1/4-1/2 inch, depending on what you intend to use the polenta for, and let cool. For baking, 1/2-inch works best; for grilling, 1/4-inch is preferable. When cool (can be refrigerated), polenta can be cut with a 3-inch round cookie cutter, into 2- by 3-inch rectangles, or into oblique diamonds of similar size, which are especially nice for grilling. Cover with plastic wrap and frig for at least 4 hours to allow to set up.   
  • Pour into a mound and let cool. Cover with plastic wrap and frig for at least 4 hours to allow to set up. Then slice vertically into slabs with a taut length of fishing line.   
  • Pour into a 9- by 5-inch oiled bread pan, cool, and refrigerate for at least 4 hours to allow to set up. Turn out when set and slice vertically with fishing line. Cut each slice in half crosswise to form rectangular pieces. 

Reheating Cooked Polenta

Fried Polenta

Heat a good layer of clarified butter or corn oil in a skillet. Arrange slices of polenta in the pan and fry until a light to medium brown crust forms on one side. Turn and repeat on the other side. Drain on paper towels and serve.

Baked Polenta

Butter a shallow baking dish and arrange layers of polenta slices, alternating the direction of each layer. Drizzle melted butter and grated Parmesan over each layer and bake at 400° for 20 minutes, until hot and bubbly. Broil the top for a minute or two to brown slightly.

Heavenly Light Baked Polenta

Butter a 2 quart baking dish with 1 tablespoon unsalted butter. Spread half the polenta evenly over the bottom of the dish. Spread ¾ cup cream over the polenta and top with ½ cup finely grated Parmesan. Top with the remainder of the polenta, and spread with 1 cup cream, lightly seasoned Top with ¼ pound sliced Fontina. Bake at 325° until golden brown, about 30-35 minutes; the cream will be absorbed by the polenta.

Batter Baked Polenta

Dip slices of polenta into beaten egg, then into a half-and-half mixture of wheat germ (or toasted, ground nuts) and bread crumbs. Arrange on a buttered baking sheet and bake at 350° for 30 minutes. Serve hot with sour cream and sliced green onions, tomato sauce, or béchamel sauce.

Grilled Polenta

Place slices of polenta on an oiled grill and cook for a minute or two on each side. Serve as an accompaniment to grilled meats and vegetables.

Resources

 Copyright 2010 Susan S. Bradley. All rights reserved.

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About Susan S. Bradley

Intrepid cook, food writer, culinary instructor, author of Pacific Northwest Palate: Four Seasons of Great Cooking, and founder of the Northwest Culinary Academy.

Comments

  1. That dish in the first picture looks delish!! Could you tell me the recipe for it? Thanks!

  2. Nice that you always describe a variety of recipes for a specific product. The Polenta recipes and photos look good. You spend a lot of time in the kitchen, don’t you? I prefer the dish with the shrimp instead of polenta with mushrooms.

  3. I love it! You totally gave this polenta the risotto treatment. Looks fabulous
    Feast on the Cheap´s last blog post ..Sausage and White Beans with Roasted TomatoesMy Profile

    • Did you say RISOTTO? Now that’s another fabulous winter dish, so comforting and also easy to make after a long day at work. Jumping over to check out your Sausage and Beans. Love that combo!

  4. Penny Wolf says:

    Fried polenta sounds more appealing than fried mush which is what I grew up with. Served with butter and maple syrup or a light molasses along side a breakfast meat is a great winter’s breakfast!

    • Penny, that sounds delicious. Even though my dad and his parents were Kentucky born and raised, they never mentioned or cooked grits. I was well into adulthood before I discovered polenta, then grits. It’s such a versatile dish.

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