I have been cooking polenta for many years now and I still find it funny that when I tell people what I am serving or just present the dish to company, many people are not familiar with this fabulous dish. When I say “dish” I mean that rather loosely since polenta comes in many forms and can be transformed into many consistencies, shapes and flavors quite easily and quite inexpensively.
Polenta is a course ground corn meal – and that’s it! Other than the size of the ground grain, it is the exact same thing as corn meal. Corn meal can be purchased from fine to course grind. Fine and medium grinds are generally used for making corn bread, muffins, and most baking – but when a recipe calls for polenta, it is the coarsest grind they refer to.
Different methods of cooking polenta result in different textures. Cooked polenta can be creamy as in soft polenta or firm as in a grilled polenta. As with all starches it is a wonderful base or side to many meals. As the focus of this article is on keeping meals within a budget, I wanted to explore using polenta as part of a one-dish meal since polenta itself is rather inexpensive. You should be able to get a bag of polenta (12 oz.) for about $4 (Bob’s Red Mill polenta is the most common brand I have found) at most grocery stores, or if you think ahead you can purchase in bulk on-line for just about $1/pound. Each bag will make many batches of polenta. Generally speaking one cup of dry polenta should feed a family of four.
The dominant flavor of cooked soft polenta is obviously corn, but it is mild enough that you can season it in various ways to easily give it different ethnic nuances or vary the taste with different cheeses or herbs. My favorite way to serve soft polenta is to make the polenta and season with herbs and cheeses, then top with sautéed or braised vegetables. If you want it a little heartier you can top the dish with sliced, grilled meat, fish, or poultry – and voila you have a delicious one dish meal.
In addition to polenta being affordable it is also very simple to make. Below you will find a basic recipe for creamy polenta.
- 3 Tablespoons unsalted butter
- 2 tablespoons onions or shallots, finely chopped
- 3 cups gf chicken Stock or water
- 1 cup yellow cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup grated parmesan cheese
- 1 teaspoon salt, or to taste
In a large saucepan melt butter over medium heat. Add onions and cook, stirring, until translucent, about 5 minutes. Stir in 3 cups of chicken stock and bring to a boil. Gradually add the polenta to the pan, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium low, and cook, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until cornmeal is very thick and leaves the side of the pan as it is stirred, about 25 minutes. Stir in the cheese and season to taste with salt.
If you want it extra creamy you can add about 2-3 tablespoons of cream at the end and it will create the most awesome tasting, rich and delicious, smooth and creamy dish (this is how my son likes it).
There are a few tips to remember when cooking polenta:
- Generally, the liquid to polenta ratio is 3 to 1.
- Always add polenta to the simmering liquid in a slow steady stream to prevent lumps from forming.
- Always stir while adding polenta to liquid, preferably with a wooden spoon.
- Cook polenta in a heavy saucepan to avoid burning
- It is not necessary to stir polenta continuously once the cooking process has begun, but you must stir every 1 to 2 minutes.
- Polenta is done when the mass comes away from the pan sides when stirred.
Below you will find several delicious, one-dish polenta meals:
Creamy Polenta with Fresh Corn
Creole Ragout over Polenta
Polenta with Mixed Vegetables
Polenta with Sausage & Tomato Ragout
Polenta with Braised Peppers
Shrimp & Peppers over Cheddar Cheese Polenta
- Chef Jessica