Very scary things have been said about polenta. It’s pasty. It needs to be fussed over or it’s all lumps and bumps. It burns if you so much as glance at it wrong.
But here is the secret. It has to be stirred. And this can’t be hurried. That’s it.
It knows what it needs. And what it needs is an hour to be ready. So do not rush it, thankyouverymuch. Making polenta is mediation by way of cornmeal.
I felt this needed to be discussed for a few reasons. One. Because I had an early dinner with my brother a few weeks ago and the man revealed he has yet to latch on to the right polenta recipe. Since he owns my great grandmother’s hand crank cavatelli maker—and has used it—I can assure you his polenta void is not for lack of wont.
Two. Because at said dinner at a trendy-new-restaurant-which shall-remain-nameless, we had a side of farro that was barely passable. Sad and pale and bored. (Like a New Englander trudging through
March April.) And this should simply not be the case
for Italian grains that require so little to taste delicious.
Three. Because I recently visited Misty Brook Farm and have fallen for their Early Riser cornmeal, which they also feed to their pigs and chickens. And I hope this balances out some of the implied elitism when I say it’s organic, meaning it’s a non-GMO (a rarity), and from a local farm. Any food that’s fed to both farm animals and humans can’t be too highbrow. In fact, I hope we can come to live in a world where people say, “If it’s good enough for the pigs, it’s good enough for me.”
During my research, I also stumbled across this quote from an online garden supply store about using Early Riser: “Chickens will produce eggs with deep golden yolks, cows love it, and it makes a high quality cornmeal for us humans as well.” Now, cows aren't technically supposed to eat corn. But that aside, it’s ground so fine and delicate that it makes the creamiest polenta known to man.
But you still have to stir it.
So do your dishes while it gently bubbles on the stovetop. Or, better yet, grab a book and a bottle of wine and head to the kitchen. This is precisely how I became well acquainted with both Nigel Slater’s recipe for root vegetable korma and a fantastic Umbrian Sunday dinner red from The Wine Bottega. (Both of which I highly recommend.) You don’t have to be chained to the range, but you really don’t want to stray too far for too long.
You see. The key is stirring, and patience. This makes a high quality polenta for us humans, as well.
Early Riser Polenta
5 cups water
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt, plus additional, to taste
1 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons (1 ounce) butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan cheese
Pinch of crushed red pepper
Black pepper, to taste
In a 2-quart saucepan, bring the water to a simmer. Add the salt and then slowly whisk in the cornmeal. Continue to whisk until any lumps dissolve.
Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook the cornmeal for about an hour, stirring regularly to prevent any lumps from forming. The cornmeal will bubble occasionally; if it starts to sputter and splatter, turn down the heat.
The polenta is done when it is creamy and has reduced roughly by half. (It should not taste floury or raw, if it does, cook it longer.) Stir in the butter, cheese, and crushed red pepper. Taste and adjust for seasoning. Serve hot.
Makes about 3 cups
-I’ve made the recipe with standard yellow polenta (typically medium or coarse ground cornmeal), as well. (You can find Early Riser at Misty Brook Farm here.)
-If your polenta is looking too dry, add in a drizzle of water.
-The vegetable korma is a great way to use up any winter roots you may still have lying around. (The recipe is from Tender.)