Traditional polenta is a simple dish and a great alternative to pasta, rice or potatoes. Fine-grind corn meal and water are cooked together over medium heat, stirring constantly to get that creamy texture. Add salt, a knob of butter and some fresh grated parmesan cheese, and you have a great Italian polenta.
And that is where the debate starts! Everyone has a "secret" to the perfect polenta. Use a ratio of 4:1 or 5:1 cornmeal to water, substitute milk for water, pre-soak or don't pre-soak, add the polenta to cold water or after its a rolling boil, only stir clockwise - these are all debated techniques. This recipe is my favorite way to make it. Use a 5:1 ratio of cornmeal to water (softer), pre-soak the corn meal in a good quality water, bring to broil, and stir in any direction you want! I followed my favorite Italian home cook, MaryAnn Espito's recipe, and followed some suggestions from Chef Daniel Gritzer, at SeriousEats for a great and easy recipe.
I also like the classic presentation of a serving the polenta family style, freeform on an oiled wooden board. You can scoop it up, or cut it into slices after it firms up. This is best when paired with a rich, fatty dish such as a Porchetta Roast. Often the saucy meat or vegetable dish is served on top. If you are serving it with a more lean cut of meat, or meal, I think it is best to cut it into slices and lightly fry it in olive oil to get a light crust. You can also pour the cooked polenta into a loaf pan, 9 X 13 baking dish, or round bowl to achieve different shapes for frying.
Polenta is versatile and forgiving. The corn flavor can be enhanced with the addition of herbs and spices. One of my favorites is to fry sage leaves or chopped rosemary and mix in while cooking. Another option is the type of grind. Specialty stores carry coarse-grind corn meal that have more texture and bite to it, and take a little longer to cook, however it is also delicious. You can be as creative as you want.
Traditional Freeform Polenta with Sage and Parmesan Cheese
- Special equipment: Enameled 7-quart round-bottom pan large wooden board, flat bottom wooden spoon
- 10 cups distilled or pure spring water
- 2 cups cornmeal consistent, fine grind (not coarse)
- 1 ½ teaspoons salt
- 8 -10 sage leaves torn small piece and fried in 2 tablespoons olive oil
- Bunch sage for garnish
- fresh ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons butter
- 1 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese
- In an 7 quart enameled round bottom pot, soak cornmeal in distilled water for 1-2 hours.
- Put the pot on the stovetop with the water and cornmeal and bring to a rolling boil, stirring occasionally.
- Lower heat to medium and cook, stirring constantly.
- Reduce the heat again as soon as it starts to show the first signs of spitting, keeping it low enough that the polenta won't puff, pop, and spit as it cooks. Keep stirring and scraping the bottom of the pan so nothing sticks or burns. When the mixture thickens and begins to leave the side of the pan, it is almost done. If any lumps form give a good whisk until the lumps disappear.
- Mix in fried sage pieces with flavored olive oil, salt, black pepper, and butter during the last 5 minutes. When done, turn off the heat and mix in freshly grated parmesan cheese. The polenta should be smooth, glossy, and soft/slightly runny. The total cooking time from the time the water boils should be about 30-45 minutes with pre-soaked polenta.
- Immediately pour the polenta onto a lightly oiled wooden board or platter. Let it cool for 15 minutes, and then cut into slices. Garnish with fresh sage leaves and more grated cheese.