Getting to know polenta

24 Apr 2018

If you’ve been cruising through winter without polenta, you’ve been doing it ALLLLLL wrong. Here’s how to introduce our favourite Italian comfort food to your winter dining repertoire.

Winter is now well and truly banging on our door, and with the dropping temps comes a craving for food that warms us from the inside. Sure, soups are great and all, as are steaming curries and casseroles, but don’t look past polenta for your comfort food fix.

 

WHAT IS POLENTA?

Hailing from northern Italy, polenta is simply course stone-ground cornmeal, similar to grits, eaten in America’s deep south. Far from the fine dining fixture it has become, polenta is traditionally peasant food. Cooked in water or broth, the grains of corn gradually thicken and become tender, forming a thick porridge. Working class families would combine the mixture with legumes or beans to create a cheap yet hearty meal, served on a large wooden board in the middle of the table.

Did you know: Polenta doesn’t have to be made with a product branded ‘polenta’. Any medium to coarsely-ground cornmeal will do the trick.

 

HOW TO COOK POLENTA

The key to supreme polenta flavour is quality.

You’ll find Instant, or ‘minute’ polenta, on supermarket shelves. These are made from either finely-ground corn, or pre-cooked polenta that’s then dried and ground into a flour. While undeniably convenient (and don’t get us wrong – there’s nothing wrong with this option), instant polenta has nothing on polenta cooked the traditional way.

Doing this is incredibly easy. Simply gradually add your polenta to a large, heavy-based pot of boiling water while stirring. Polenta takes on the flavour of its added ingredients, so some cooks prefer to use stock, milk or a combination of all three, always using a ration of four parts liquid to one-part polenta. Like rice and pasta, polenta expands as it boils. If you want a looser, thinner consistency, use a ratio of 5:1.

The secret to perfect polenta is frequent stirring – the cornmeal has a tendency to scorch if it’s left unattended, so keep it moving as much as possible.

 

GETTING CREATIVE WITH POLENTA

While polenta’s roots are anything but glamorous, today, you’ll find restaurants serving it up in any number of tasty ways – grilled, baked, sautéed, pan fried or straight out of the pot, the possibilities are endless.

Just cooked polenta is soft and tastes even better seasoned with butter, shavings of black truffle, or a sharp Italian cheese, like parmesan. It’s then a great pasta substitute – serve it under a hearty lamb or mushroom ragu (our personal favourite), a rich strew or tomato sauce and let it soak up all those juices. Alternatively, serve it at breakfast as a hot cereal topped with butter, milk and sugar, or with poached eggs and grated cheese.

For more creative ways to use polenta, pour it while into a baking dish and let it cool until it’s firm. It can then be cut into shapes, like chips, which taste great crumbed then deep fried or baked. Thin slices of cooled polenta can be layered with tomato sauce, meat and cheese then baked like a lasagna. Squares can be grilled or pan fried then used like toast, topped with grilled capsicum or mushrooms.

Top tip: Your cookware can make or break your polenta. To keep it from sticking to the bottom of the pan, or burning, make sure you use a heavy-based pot, like one made from cast iron. If you’re really serious, invest in an Italian-style copper polenta pot, which eliminates the need for constant stirring.

 

WHERE TO GET YOUR POLENTA

Quality counts when you’re cooking polenta, so make sure you invest in top notch produce. The Black Truffle sells Chef’s Choice yellow polenta ($4.50/500g), a high-quality medium-ground variety that produces a flavourful, creamy polenta. Alternatively, treat yourself to a square of our polenta cake – a square of creamy, firm polenta flavoured with mushrooms, thyme and parmesan, and topped with zucchini peas, basil and fried enoki mushrooms. You’ll often find it in among the fresh food options in our deli section.