I know you’ll be skeptical, but I must tell you—this method of making polenta has changed my life.
I found the method on the back of a package of Golden Pheasant polenta, but Ed Fleming, the distributor, says it’s an old Tuscan peasant recipe that he found twenty years ago. I’m sure others do it this way, but making polenta without stirring was news to me.
This no-stir method—combining cornmeal, water, and a little salt in an oiled nonstick skillet and roasting it in the oven (as opposed to frequent stirring in a pot on the stove)—produces wondrous results: creamy polenta with an appetizing sheen and the voluptuous, bosomy quality that well-made polenta should have. Varying the proportion of water to cornmeal lets you adjust the polenta’s consistency from runny to firm and lets the polenta take on many different guises: a simple steaming bowl served with a little grated cheese; a bed for stews and ragoûts; layered or stirred with greens and cheese for pies or gratins; or slices or cubes to fry or grill and top with fresh herbs and cheese.
Twice the time, but worth the wait
Cooking polenta this way takes longer than if I were doing it on top of the stove, but it leaves me free to take care of the stew, greens, or whatever else I’ll serve with the polenta. I also love this no-stir method because:
• I don’t get tired from stirring, nor do I have to deal with a sputtering pot.
• The polenta gets an appealing toasty corn flavor and aroma from oven roasting.
• The polenta doesn’t get watery because of too much liquid added at the end of cooking to thin it out before serving. If you’re used to stirring, this method will require a leap of faith, but trust me. The cornmeal and water may actually separate in the oven and not come together for more than half the cooking time. But don’t worry—they will.
A wide, deep uncovered skillet lets the cornmeal roast in the open heat
I use a wide, deep, uncovered skillet to expose a large amount of cornmeal to the open heat. This toasts the cornmeal as it cooks, teases out more flavor, and adds a roasted quality.
A large nonstick sauté pan or skillet is key. With nonstick, there’s no scorching on the bottom, and the polenta slides out of the pan like a dream.
Be sure your pan is ovenproof up to 350°F, which is the temperature I’m using here to cook the polenta. I’ve had good results with a three-quart nonstick sauté pan by All-Clad Ltd. The 12-inch heavy-gauge aluminum nonstick “Peking” pan developed by Joyce Chen is also good, especially if you’re doubling these recipes to serve eight. If you don’t have a skillet, a well-oiled four-quart saucepan works, too, but the cooking may take a little longer because the pan is deeper. I’ve also used a small uncovered Chinese clay pot with a glazed interior and short handle, which works beautifully for smaller batches. You can find one in a Chinese market for under $10.
Dress up a plain bowl of polenta
A simple bowl of steaming polenta is wonderfully comforting by itself, but it’s also terrific with:
• a dusting of aged Parmesan.
• Gorgonzola with chopped walnuts.
• soft cheese, such as ricotta or mascarpone, stirred in.
• a heavy sprinkling of chopped herbs and a drizzle of fruity olive oil.
• a saute of bitter greens or wild mushrooms
• a topping of slow-cooked sliced onions
A fresh bag of cornmeal smells sweet
Polenta is, of course, made from cornmeal, which you can find in supermarkets and health-food stores. A good batch smells bright and sweet; a stale batch will have a cardboardy smell and taste.
Cornmeal comes in fine, medium, medium-coarse, and coarse grinds. Here, I’m using coarse and medium-coarse grinds because I prefer the texture of the finished polenta to that produced by fine cornmeal. I think American stone-ground meal is wonderful. Imported Italian vacuum-packed cornmeal is excellent, too, but it’s pricier.
Some distributors even label the box “polenta”; this is fine as long as you don’t buy instant polenta, which is flavorless in comparison to its longer-cooking cousin. If the only cornmeal you can find is Quaker or another major brand name that isn’t coarse, make sure that it’s yellow rather than white (white is all right; it’s just a little bland) and that it’s a medium grind.
Try to use a bag or box of cornmeal soon after you buy it. You’ll get a fresher corn taste this way. I recommend storing cornmeal in the freezer, tightly sealed (storing it in the refrigerator can produce mold). The better mills in this country dry their corn and grind it as needed, so if you can get cornmeal that has been ground recently, your polenta will be that much tastier.
Runny, soft, or firm polenta depends on the amount of liquid
Runny, soft, or firm polenta depends on the amount of liquid No matter what grind of cornmeal you’re using, the consistency of the polenta will depend on how much water you use. Use the chart opposite to guide you. I usually use just water, but half milk and half water gives a rich, mellow flavor. Quite a few chefs I know use chicken stock, although I don’t myself. Be aware that if you want to keep the polenta for a few days to use for wedges, slices, or dumplings, polenta made with stock or milk won’t keep.