One of the glories of Italian cooking, polenta is cornmeal that is cooked in water or broth until it thickens and the grains of the cornmeal become tender. In Italy, polenta may be either yellow or white, made from coarsely ground or finely ground cornmeal, but the classic version is made from coarsely and evenly ground yellow corn. Traditionally, it was poured right into the middle of a wooden table or onto a wooden board as soon as it was ready and then cut with a string for serving after cooling.
Polenta can be spooned straight out of the pot when still soft. Just-cooked polenta is often enriched and softened with butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, then served as a base for a thick stew, absorbing savory meat juices and adding its own sweet taste of corn. It is a wonderful hot cereal as well, topped with butter, milk and sugar or with poached eggs and grated cheese. Polenta in this stage is often referred to as soft polenta, though true soft polenta, a southern Italian variation of polenta also known as polentina, is a thinner, porridgelike mixture that stays softer longer as it cools. The softness of polenta depends on the amount of liquid used. More liquid renders a softer polenta. Polenta that is to be cooled and cooked further is made with less liquid, so it is firmer and easier to cut.
Soft polenta can be poured into a flat pan and cooled until firm, then cut into shapes to be grilled, fried, sautéed or baked. Thin slices can be layered with tomato sauce, cheese and vegetables and baked like lasagna. Squares of firm polenta can be browned in butter or oil, or brushed with oil and broiled or grilled and then used in place of toast as the base for appetizers topped with sautéed greens, grilled peppers or mushrooms.
Traditional Italian cooks make polenta in a special unlined copper polenta pot. They add the cornmeal to boiling water or broth in a slow, steady stream and stir with a wooden spoon, ideally in the same direction throughout cooking, until the polenta thickens to a golden mass and pulls away from the sides of the pan and the polenta grains are tender to the tongue. This usually takes 40 to 45 minutes. A serviceable polenta can be made after about 20 minutes of cooking, as it will have thickened and cooked sufficiently by this time, but only the long-cooked kind will have a tender, silken texture. Some food writers are now recommending baking polenta in the oven, without stirring.
Choose an imported Italian polenta cornmeal or, if you prefer, stone-ground cornmeal in a fine grind. Stone-ground cornmeal has more fiber and minerals than the more commonly available degerminated cornmeal, and some cooks find it has a richer corn flavor as well. Polenta is available in instant form, too, although for the best consistency, instant polenta should be cooked for about 15 minutes, which is longer than the instructions on most packages indicate. To purists, the flavor and texture of instant polenta suffer in comparison to regular polenta; it is best reserved for dishes in which polenta is one of several ingredients. Polenta is also available cooked, cooled and shaped into plastic-wrapped cylinders, a great time-saver when making fried and grilled sliced polenta.
Stone-ground cornmeal must be refrigerated. Degerminated cornmeal has a longer shelf life and can be stored at cool room temperature.
Quick Tip: The kind of pot you use for cooking polenta makes a difference. To keep the polenta from sticking and scorching, make sure the pot is heavy. Unless you have a copper polenta pot, enameled cast iron is the best choice.
Adapted from Williams-Sonoma Kitchen Companion: The A to Z Guide to Everyday Cooking, Equipment and Ingredients (Time-Life Books, 2000)