Tuesday, August 3, 2010

Demystifying Polenta: Its Just Ground-Up Corn!!!

Dear Tricia, Polenta is intimidating me. It's cornmeal so I think that I like it, but I both of my experiments have been failures. The first time it was all my fault. I burnt it and take complete responsibility. The second time, Polenta puffed up it's big Italian chest, bit it's thumb at me, and got lumpy. It tasted okay, but I felt gypped. Maybe I didn't "rain the grain" properly. I don't know. Also, I can buy polenta in both the bulk and refrigerated sections of Whole Foods. What's that about? I suspect the tubes of polenta are there so I can be lazy, but the recipes I find always call for the grain.

Yeah, polenta has this really intimidating reputation for being some kind of elusive magic food that no one can master, not even Bruce Lee. To add to the hype, there was an article about it in the New York Times earlier this year called "Taking the Fear out of Making Polenta." I think that's really sad and ironic because polenta started out as a peasant food way back in the day. Those peasant dudes didn't have to go to culinary school to figure it out: its just porridge. Don't be afraid of food. Have fun with it, and if you mess up, then just start over or try it again some other time. Okay, off my soap box now.

The whole "rain the grain" concept: forget about the term. Let's not over complicate what "slowly sprinkling the cornmeal into the water" is. Its cooking, not meteorology. Even my Bible, (and every other professional cook or chef's Bible) The Professional Chef, doesn't use that term. You're making a big bowl o' gruel. Not a big deal. And when it comes to who's higher on the food chain, you will always win over polenta, hands down.

Alright, so traditionally you boil salted water in a pot, and slowly sprinkle the polenta in while you stir stir stir. When it all has been added, turn down the heat and keep stirring to prevent those naughty little lumps. Its not a quick process- give yourself at least half an hour- and if you don't stir enough, you'll get lumps. If you have the heat up too high, you'll also get lumps then. My guess is that you had the heat up too high: both times, not just when you burned it. But just to be sure, I tried a couple of different methods to find an easier way for you to succeed next try.

First try: Alton Brown's method. While I'm not a big fan of the Food Network, I do love me some Alton Brown. He's kind of like a male version of myself, but he cusses less and I probably look better in heels. And that's ok... I love him all the same. Anyway, he has a recipe that makes polenta in the oven, so you don't have to stand there and stir for 40 minutes when you could be doing something else more important. (Like playing Lego Batman on Wii or making margaritas.) Here's the recipe:

2 tablespoons olive oil
3/4 cup finely chopped red onion
2 cloves garlic, finely minced
1 quart chicken stock or broth
1 cup coarse ground cornmeal
3 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
2 ounces Parmesan, grated

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

In a large, oven-safe saucepan heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add the red onion and salt and sweat until the onions begin to turn translucent, approximately 4 to 5 minutes. Reduce the heat to low, add the garlic, and saute for 1 to 2 minutes, making sure the garlic does not burn.
Turn the heat up to high, add the chicken stock, bring to a boil. Gradually add the cornmeal while continually whisking. Once you have added all of the cornmeal, cover the pot and place it in the oven. Cook for 35 to 40 minutes, stirring every
10 minutes to prevent lumps. Once the mixture is creamy, remove from the oven and add the butter, salt, and pepper. Once they are incorporated, gradually add the Parmesan.

And that's it. You leave it cook in the oven, stir it a few times, and when I tried it... it was completely free of lumps. And super easy, too. I like that, and it probably fits in a little better with your schedule than standing over a stove for longer than an entire episode of "Family Guy."

I wanted to try something else too. I went back to that New York Times article... the one that supposedly takes the "fear" out of making polenta, and I checked out what the author's secret was. He swore by making a slurry of polenta and water first (traditionally, a slurry is when you mix cold water and cornstarch together first before you add it to a sauce to thicken it. This is to prevent lumps), then "add it to not-to-high heat, bring it to a boil, reduce it to a simmer and gradually add more water as needed to keep the mixture smooth and loose."

That's confusing as all get-out. (Its also the same method for making risotto, but that's another blog for another time.) Seriously, not to knock another writer, I mean... he does write for the New York Times and I don't, but it didn't really take the fear out of making polenta. I'd venture to say it adds more fear to it. An amateur would need the Polenta Whisperer to use that recipe. So I tried it anyway and it worked fine too- no lumps. But it took the traditional process and added like 3 more steps to it. It was so much more time-consuming than the oven-method and it gave me the same results. No thanks, New York Times.

So, if I were you, I'd try Alton Brown's method. It gave me lump-free polenta and it also took less time with half the work. About your polenta-in-the-tube question. Its just a convenience product- like buying frozen waffles or TV dinners. If you like to chill polenta, slice it, and grill it, that's why you'd buy it already made in a tube. Not gonna judge... go on with your convenience-loving self if it makes you and your belly happy.

When I get time (and an extra $35 for the annual fee), I'm going to try Cook's Illustrated's recipe for making polenta in the microwave. I'm feeling pretty good about it, but I'll keep you posted. In the meantime, let me know how your next run goes. I always love What the Bleep feedback.

Thanks for reading, and make sure you join my Facebook fan page where I get to interact more with my readers. Word.


Anonymous said...

Joy often comes after sorrow, like morning after night.. . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

Erin McGuire said...

But, once the polenta is made, what should you serve it with? Or is it more like grits, where you just eat it plain?

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