Don’t let the name fool you—polenta may sound like something complicated to make, but it’s really just good, simple, down-home food. Exceptionally versatile, nourishing, and extremely tasty, it makes a quick and unexpected side dish and marries well with a variety of main courses, especially saucy ones like beef stew or chicken fricassée. It’s the perfect antidote for a cold winter day. Sometimes I get a craving for polenta and then figure out what I’m going to serve with it.
Polenta is user-friendly. Despite popular belief, you don’t have to watch over polenta the whole time it cooks. And the formula is easy. While no two types of cornmeal are exactly the same, on average, you’ll need about 4 cups liquid to 1 cup regular cornmeal. You can adjust the liquid as you go: If the polenta has thickened but is still a bit gritty, add a little more water.
Once you understand the technique, then you can start to have fun with variations. Try mixing in ingredients like chopped fresh herbs and various cheeses at the end of cooking; or pour the polenta into a pan, let it set, cut it into shapes, and use it as a base for snazzy appetizers and hors d’oeuvres.
Cornmeal is the ingredient; polenta is the dish
Although polenta is the name of the prepared dish, it’s made from cornmeal. There are two basic kinds of cornmeal, yellow and white, but more important than color is how it’s made. Cornmeal can range from a fine flour manufactured in a modern roller mill to a rough meal ground in a local gristmill. I prefer a coarse, artisanal, stone-ground cornmeal even though it takes a bit longer to cook: It has a more interesting, toothy texture. But if you can’t find that, it’s no reason not to make polenta. Just be sure your cornmeal contains only ground corn; avoid brands with additives or preservatives. Don’t use instant polenta: Although it cooks in about 5 minutes, it gives a more muted color and flavor and pastier consistency than the full, nutty, sweet flavor and creamy texture of regular cornmeal.