In Pennsylvania, in the depths of January, when it gets so cold you can see ice forming on the insides of windows — it’s time for polenta. Here in California, once it hits 60 or under, we shamelessly jump on the polenta bandwagon.
I wasn’t a big fan of polenta as a kid, not because of its taste, but because I saw it as poor people food. I rationalized that my parents were colorful and old fashioned — that’s why they picked dandelions in the front yard, foraged for mushrooms in the woods, went hunting and made polenta, a fancy Italian word for gruel. But sadly, polenta sat as creamy, golden proof of the ugly truth.
Polenta, pesto, and all things Italian got really popular in the 80’s and 90s. You couldn’t go anywhere without being assaulted by tiramisu or polenta. But before its resurgence, polenta was food for poor people, and in the winter, when my dad didn’t have much bricklaying work, we made do with it. My mom made the sauce. My dad made the polenta. He loved it, probably because it reminded him of being a happy, child in Italy, who’d get an orange for Christmas and be thrilled. It was also the only thing he knew how to cook, besides rotisserie eels on Christmas Eve (another crowd pleaser). He never used a recipe.
Once my mom passed away, Dad’s cooking improved, but he never made polenta anymore. Lucky for him, Uncle Richard; a great cook, always came over on the coldest days and made a giant pot. He never used a recipe either.
All it involves is water, cornmeal and salt. I figured, how hard can it be? So, I looked up a recipe and followed it. Too salty. Then I tried it again, too thin. Then I decided to ask Uncle Richard, which is like asking a squirrel how it hides nuts. It’s instinct; squirrels don’t think about it and I’ve never heard of one explaining how it’s done.
So, I readily forgive him his inability to quantify his polenta recipe — he’s Italian — what was I thinking? Italians will face death by firing squad before coughing up a recipe, because they’re working on instinct.
I’ve been stressing over this blog, wanting to make a killer polenta recipe. As I said, I tried it a few times. Talking with Uncle Richard forced me to worry less about the recipe and trust my instincts. Here’s the conversation:
“So, Uncle, how do you make polenta, what’s your recipe?”
“You know I don’t use a recipe. I just cook it! You get water and boil it, then mix your cornmeal with water and make a slurry. Then add it to the boiling water and keep stirring.”
“But how much water?”
“I don’t know — about two quarts.”
“And how much corn meal Uncle?”
“I don’t know, I don’t measure.”
“Well, if you had to guess?”
“Maybe one or two cups, if it gets too thick — add more water.”
“And what about salt?”
“Just add it toward the end, taste it and if it needs salt, add it.”
“How much salt?”
“Just taste it! If it needs salt, add it!”
See what I mean? It’s easier to move mountains than get a recipe out of an Italian. My attempts without Uncle Richard’s recipe were OK. With it, they improved. I even checked Food Network because I wanted to try one that’s a little richer. Emeril Lagasse had a good one. My dad and Uncle Richard’s basic recipes are good and healthy, but like a good American, I thought I’d try something a little richer/trashier. I think I found it.
The good news is polenta is versatile. Just like pasta, you can serve it with pasta sauce and sausage or vegetables or whatever. The first batch I made was topped with pasta sauce and sausage. My second batch had pesto and sausage, my third batch was crowned with mushrooms, zucchini and sausage and my fourth batch featured caramelized onions, bacon bits and roasted brussels sprouts (my kids idea). My favorite was the dish topped with tomato sauce and sausage.
If you have a favorite recipe, or topping, let me know. I’ll add it to my polenta repertoire for those freezing 60 degree days.
Uncle Richard and Dad’s Polenta Recipe
6 cups water
1/2 to 3/4 cup of cornmeal (make sure your cornmeal is fresh– it can get rancid and taste bitter if it’s too old)
1/4 tsp salt or more to taste
Bring the water to a boil in a medium pot, add salt and stir. Slowly pour in the cornmeal, stirring with a whisk constantly. Cook over medium heat until the mixture thickens and cornmeal is soft (about 20 minutes to a half hour). When done, you can stir in some grated Parmesan or Romano. Then ladle it into a bowl and top with sauce and sausage and sprinkle with cheese, or top with whatever you want.
Emeril Lagasse’s Creamy Polenta (from Food Network)
4 cups water (plus more as needed)
4 cups milk (plus more as needed)
3 Tbsp butter
2 tsp. salt
2 cups polenta
1/2 cup creme fraiche
1/3 cup Parmigiano Reggiano
In a large saucepan, bring the water, milk and butter to a boil. Add two teaspoons of salt to the water and whisk in the polenta. Whisk constantly for three to four minutes to prevent lumps. Simmer for 45 minutes, partly covered and stir every ten minutes until the polenta is thick, smooth and creamy. Add the creme fraiche and Parmigiano. Check for seasoning and adjust for consistency by adding more milk or water. It may be made 20 minutes ahead of time and kept covered until ready to serve.
(When I made this, I didn’t have Creme Fraiche. I also substituted cheddar cheese for the Parmigiano and threw in some chopped parsley. I’ll try it again, but it was good with the cheddar.)
Roasted Brussels Sprouts
1 16 oz package of Brussels sprouts
1/4 cup olive oil (I used Bellucci and it was great.)
Rinse Brussels sprouts and trim ends, removing the outer leaves if discolored or dry.
Toss in a bowl with olive oil and salt. Spread on a cookie sheet and bake at 400 for 20 to 25 minutes or until nicely browned.
Quick Tomato Sauce for Polenta
3 cans of stewed tomatoes
3 cloves garlic, crushed
2 Tbsp. Olive oil
2-3 italian sausages
1/4 cup red wine
Italian seasoning (if necessary)
In a medium sauce pan, place chopped garlic, olive oil and sausage. Brown sausage on all sides. (Make sure garlic doesn’t burn.) Puree stewed tomatoes so they are smooth. Pour tomatoes over sausages, add, wine, let cook for about 30 minutes. Add additional Italian seasoning if necessary. Remove sausage, cut in to 1/2 inch pieces and return to pot. When polenta is cooked, pour sauce and sausage on top. Serve with grated cheese.