Polenta is a traditional side dish both in the southern U.S. and in northern Italy. It's made by simmering coarsely ground cornmeal until the natural starches are released, making it wonderfully creamy and satisfying. It's actually quite similar to grits, although grits are made with nixtamalized corn (aka hominy), whereas polenta is made from ordinary corn.
You can make polenta by simmering it in plain water, but water doesn't have any flavor, so stock is a much better choice. Chicken stock is great for making polenta, and so is veal stock. But for the best polenta you ever tasted, simmer a ham hock for a couple of hours and use the resulting liquid to make your polenta.
Speaking of which, when you're making this polenta, bear in mind that the finished product should be as thick as possible while still remaining a liquid. In other words, not so thick that you spoon it out in clumps, or that it stands up on the plate like a brick.
Rather, it should be almost pourable. Not quite as pourable as soup, but like very thick lava. In fact, because it is so thick, polenta can hold its temperature for quite a long time, so take care to let it cool sufficiently before you serve it. It should be hot, but not literally volcanic.
To be sure, there are times when you might want firm polenta, such as when you're grilling it or frying it, or planning to cut it into squares to use as a base for canapes. These are all wonderful ways of serving polenta, and if you let this polenta cool and then chill it, it can be used in all of these ways as well. But when you're serving it as a side dish or with braised or roasted vegetables, meats or poultry, soft and creamy is the goal.
- 1 cup polenta
- 3 cups white stock (chicken stock, veal stock, or ham stock)
- 4 tablespoons butter
- Kosher salt (to taste)
In a heavy-bottomed soup pot, bring the cooking liquid to a boil. Slowly whisk in the polenta and lower heat to a very low simmer.
Cook for about 30 minutes, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon. The polenta should bubble thickly like molten lava during this time. If the polenta starts to clump up, add water (about 1/2 cup at a time) to thin it out.
Stir in butter. The final consistency should be thick and creamy but not clumpy. Adjust consistency with additional water if necessary.
Season to taste with Kosher salt and serve right away.
The most common variations on polenta involve stirring in a bit of cream at the end along with the butter. Similarly, half a cup of grated cheese is a nice addition. For something even more flavorful, try stirring in half a cup of soft goat cheese.
Apart from various dairy products, try topping with some roasted corn kernels. Roast or grill the corn, slice off the kernels and voila. Sauteed onions, mushrooms, peppers, crumbled bacon, garlic or wilted greens also make excellent toppings or add-ins.