Polenta Power

In the Chelsea Market, on 9th Ave., there’s an Italian goods store that features rows upon rows of imported treasures from Italy. There you’ll find salt-packed anchovies, genuine San Marzano tomatoes, even white truffles for several hundred dollars a pop. Every time I go in there, I marvel at the goods and then I leave empty-handed: I never know what to buy.

Recently, though, I was determined to buy something. I toured around the store and there, in the back corner near the meat counter, I spotted it: real, Italian polenta. When I say “real” polenta I mean not instant polenta. Everywhere else I’ve ever bought polenta–Key Foods, Whole Foods, Union Market–only sells instant. I wanted to experience the real deal, the kind that cooks for 45 minutes. And so I left the Italian goods store with not one but two packs of genuine Italian polenta.

I wish now to describe to you the difference between instant polenta and “real polenta.” If this were the SATs, it would go something like this:

1. Instant polenta is to regular polenta as…

(a) Care Bears are to polar bears;

(b) sitting in a massage chair at the Sharper Image is to spending a week at an Arizona spa;

(c) table for 1 at the IHOP is to table for 20 at The French Laundry.

(d) All of the Above.

The answer is D and if you haven’t yet made REAL polenta at home you get a D in my book. It’s such a shocking thing–it’s so much creamier, sultrier, sexier than instant polenta, I feel like a polenta virgin who just spent a night with Sofia Loren in a bordello. What? I don’t know. Polenta power!

So the dish you see above is polenta for breakfast. It comes from Lidia Bastiniach’s book “Lidia’s Family Table” and it’s as hardy a breakfast as you could want, especially as the weather gets colder. You cook the polenta for 40 minutes with 5 cups water to 1 cup polenta and a pinch of salt, plus a few bay leaves. Lidia has you stream the polenta into the water when it’s cold, whisking all the way, and then turn on the heat–I’m not sure what that does, but it certainly produced excellent polenta. You must stir as it goes–every few minutes or so–or it’ll stick.

Once it’s cooked through, you add a cup or two of grated Parmesan (yum!) and half a stick of butter (double yum!) And here’s the real smacker (smacker? Adam what kind of word is smacker?): once in the bowl, put an egg yolk on top and the residual heat will cook it. Grate over more cheese, some pepper too and you have a breakfast of champions. Italian champions. Like Rocky—cue Rocky music.

If you want polenta for dinner, do as Alice Waters says to do in her new book “The Art of Simple Food.” Get a baking dish, layer in polenta, tomato sauce, fresh mozarella, and Parmesan and make a polenta lasagna. Bake in the oven til golden brown on top, like here except this didn’t get really gold:


But what a dinner. Diana came over that night (remember Diana? She was my old roommate) and all three of us dug in with abandon. It was messy–it was hard to make pretty on the plate–but it was oh so good.

And so, I hope I have convinced you of the power of polenta. Real polenta, not that mamby pamby instant kind. If you’re going to make polenta, make the real thing. It’s worth it.

32 thoughts on “Polenta Power”

  1. I’ve been sitting on a bag of real polenta, not knowing what to do with it and not wanting to waste it, and now I really want to try these recipes at a completely inopportune moment! Thanks so much for the ideas! I’ll stop sitting on my food now.

  2. Also look for Valsugana polenta which cooks in 8 minutes. Ask your grocer to stock it. The grains are power steamed as they get shot through the processor, but it doesn’t seem to make any difference to the flavor at all. Italians don’t know which I have used.

    Using a flame tamer under the por once it gets to a boil helps a lot with preventing sticking, but what sticks soaks off easily with water. Polenta is one of the truly “feel good” foods, IMO. Creamy polenta with braised duck or goose makes winter almost worth it.

  3. Hi for the first time. I’m one of those “silent fans” of yours who just read and do not comment but I couldn’t resist to comment this post.

    I live in Croatia (btw Lidia Bastiniach is born in Croatia too!) and polenta is our real staple food that has fed us for centuries. I personally do not use instant polenta at all because it can’t be compared to “real” polenta and it is not to much trouble to make the real one.

    For my breakfast or light sweet dinner I like to cook polenta in milk instead of water, with a bit of suger (and pinch of salt too). It is delicious, you should try it!

    PS: If you do try it be aware that you have to stir constantly because it can burn easily!


  4. But but… isn’t there another option? What about regular old cornmeal (I guess a coarser grind of it is better)?

    I haven’t done much with polenta but that’s what I’ve heard.

  5. We always ate real polenta at home (try mounding it on a pasta plate and surrounding it with spicy sausage tomato sauce; it was one of our winter standbys) and I was stunned the one time I tried making instant (I had leftover from a polenta cake recipe). Blech! The real stuff is so creamy and wonderful…. The other night at Central Kitchen in Central Square (Cambridge) I had a stunningly good polenta with local wild mushrooms. Oh man. I’m so glad winter food time is here!

  6. Oh, fond memories of growing up and going to great grandma’s place where she would have made fresh polenta. I can attest to the deliciousness of polenta lasagna, and in fact haven’t had it in such a long time that I think I’ll be making a stop at the Italian market on the way home from work today.

    (P.S. Long time fan of the site, but haven’t posted till now. Keep up the good work!)

  7. A favorite breakfast recipe in my house: cook up a pot of polenta (I usually use Quaker cornmeal), heat some tomato sauce, fry a bunch of eggs in olive oil and crumble some goat cheese. When it comes time to serve, layer it: polenta on the bottom, then a spoonful or two of sauce, then some goat cheese, then a bit more sauce, then an egg or two. And top it with more sauce and grated parmesan if you’re really feeling, er, saucy. Or cheesy. Anyway, it’s awesome, and your yolk-topped polenta reminded me of it!

  8. You can cook it in a double boiler too – it takes about twice as long, but there’s not really any risk of it burning so you only have to stir it once every 15 minutes or so.

  9. lol, IHOP! I really enjoyed your mock SAT quiz!

    I happened to see the episodes of Lidia’s show where she prepared polenta and it made me want to make some. It looks like a very warm and comforting dish.

    Great blog, I always enjoy reading your posts!

  10. Funny, the first time I ever made polenta I was 13 years old and it was the real stuff – 45 minutes and stirring with butter and cheese and all that. But I haven’t made it since! I cannot seem to find real polenta anywhere and I am turned off by the premade tubes one finds everywhere. It looks like it will have to be a mail order thing….

  11. You should make shirts that say:

    “What? I don’t know.”

    on the front and:

    “Polenta power!”

    on the back… that would rock.

    Happy Halloweeeeeeen

  12. I would so buy one of those tshirts. =)

    … she said as she sat at her computer, eating Goldfish for dinner and writing an interminable paper. Adam, I wish I had the time you did!! I can’t wait to graduate …

  13. Haha I totally second zeep, but if you were going to make shirts for any of your blog posts, I know you have a ton of others that would beat Polenta Power out of the water. What am I trying to say? I’m not entirely sure.

    And, I’m afraid I get a D in your book :(.

  14. I love polenta, though I play it considerably faster and looser with the preparation: start with twice as much water as polenta, and keep adding water as it gets absorbed. Stop when the grains are soft, then season to taste. (Skip the whisk and go straight for the wooden spoon – polenta is coarse enough that you shouldn’t get any lumps as long as you stir the mixture thoroughly.)

    For a simple twist, use chicken stock instead of water. If you want to get fancier, whizz some sundried tomatoes in a blender and stir the resulting puree into the polenta. Pour into a baking pan and let it cool. When it’s set, cut it into slices and fry them in butter. I like them on their own, but they’re also good with fish.

    One final note: If you’re not all that concerned about authenticity, Goya brand coarse cornmeal is pretty much the same thing, only cheaper.

  15. I feel so proud and grown up! In the Baltimore are where I live, we have several wonderful Italian groceries. The only polenta I’ve ever made is REAL polenta! I had no idea that it was hard to get hold of!

    I tend to group it in the same genre as risotto – needs constant care. Polenta is actually providing a great upper arm workoutand that’s the hard part. I usually make it with butter or Parmigiano and serve it soft the first time. Then I pour it onto a wooden cutting board, let it solidify and serve it in slices, usually grilled, the next day. Anytime. Breakfast is particularly lovely.

  16. Polenta Power! Love the SAT quiz – I totally passed! I love the idea of polenta for breakfast, and that thing with the egg yolk? Holy crap that sounds good. This post was awesome – it was so funny and your writing was carefree – this is why your style was the inspiration for my blog! Keep up the good work, ADR!

  17. Here is an excellent secret to have in your back pocket. You can buy real polenta, the slow cooking delicious kind, at Whole Foods. However, it’s in the bulk bins, and it’s called “corn grits.”

    Now you know.

  18. My Italian grandmother used to make stewed zuchinni with San Marzannos and as a ‘go with’ would take the polenta from the night before cut it in fry shapes, roll it in Parmesan and fry it up! Damn that was good. GOOOOOOOO POLENTA!! YAYYYY!

  19. I’ve been making a lot of polenta recently, and am slightly obsessed with it. But it’s instant, I guess, because it doesn’t take 40 minutes. And just *last night* I read the chapter in “Heat” by Bill Buford (so good!) all about polenta. But it’s your post that’s convinced me to hit up the Italian market. Thanks! And thanks for all the comments giving me ideas on what to do with it. Yum, polenta.

  20. I accidentally sent a non foodie out to get polenta and they came back with Semolina Flour instead – but I found this great recipe to use it for!!

    Semolina and Spinach Gratin

    Bon Appétit | November 2006

    IMPROV: For a milder, creamier version, use a blend of Parmesan and Fontina instead of all Parm. (Semolina flour is sold at some supermarkets, Italian markets, and specialty foods stores.)

    Makes 6 servings.

    2cups whole milk

    2cups water

    2tablespoons unsalted butter

    1 1/4teaspoons salt

    1cup semolina flour (pasta flour)

    1 (10-ounce) package frozen chopped spinach, thawed, squeezed dry

    1/2cup grated Parmesan cheese

    3large eggs (whisk in 1 at a time)

    1/4teaspoon ground nutmeg

    Salt and pepper

    1/3cup grated Parmesan cheese Preheat oven to 400°F.

    Butter 11x7x2-inch glass or ceramic baking dish.

    In large saucepan, bring to a boil milk, water, butter, and salt. Reduce heat to medium. Gradually whisk in semolina flour, then whisk until mixture is thick and smooth, about 5 minutes. Whisk in spinach, Parmesan cheese, eggs, nutmeg, salt, and pepper. Pour mixture into prepared baking dish; smooth top and sprinkle with 1/3cup grated Parmesan cheese.

    Bake gratin until puffed and golden, about 40 minutes. Cool 10 minutes before serving.

  21. the polenta from the zingerman’s catalogue is incredible–i’m never without it in my kitchen. and the secret to amazing polenta without fuss? make it in the over–1 cup polenta to anywhere between 2-4 cups of liquid, depending on how soft you want the finished product to be. i like a mix of 2 cups water to 1 cup milk, plus a knob of butter and a bit of salt and pepper. mix together in an ovenproof skillet (pref. nonstick), stick it in a 350 oven for 30 minutes, stir, then bake 10 more minutes or so. it’s like a godsend and so freakin’ easy. i thank paula wolfert for that, from a fine cooking from about 6-7 years ago. you will not be sorry.

  22. the polenta from the zingerman’s catalogue is fantastic. i’m never without it in my fridge. and you want to know the secret to great polenta without fuss? make it in the oven. 1 cup polenta to anywhere between 2-4 cups liquid, depending on how soft you want the finished product to be. i like 2 cups water, 1 cup milk, plus a knob of butter and some salt and pepper. put it in an oven-proof skillet, pref. non-stick, and pop it in a 350 degree oven. bake 30 minutes, stir, then 10 more minutes. that’s it. and i thank paula wolfert and fine cooking from about 6-7 years ago from that one. it’s fantastic!

  23. Adam: Get thee to Marcella Hazan, go! For the best stuffed, baked polenta, see her recipe in ESSENTIALS (I have to presume since I own the two original books that volume combines). She recommends three layers of polenta which you form by pouring the cooked porridge onto a wooden board and then, slicing the cooled blob w thread (or dental floss) stretched tautly between both hands. Layer w ragu, bechamel & Parmesan; two layers suffice. Even better? Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s recipe for ragu (in THE SPLENDID TABLE) substituted for Hazan’s. Or add a few reconstituted porcini, sautéed, to Hazan’s ragu, though the LRK recipe should be on your list as the Next Big Revelation. Leftovers are even more glorious when reheated the next day or the one after that. My go-to dish for company in the winter w a simple fennel salad and an old Chez Panisse recipe for roasted eggplant soup as a starter.

  24. Adam — you can also try the Bob’s Red Mill coarse stone-ground cornmeal to make polenta the same way. The difference between stone-ground (they leave the bran in the meal) and steel-ground (usually absent the bran) is as mind-blowing as your revelation about making it the long way.

    It makes polenta that actually tastes like it comes from corn, rather than just a vehicle for cheese and sauce. Also, it makes killer grits — which is essentially the same as polenta, but with milk substituted for some of the water.


    the zen kitchen

  25. Isn’t polenta the same thing as grits? I have made polenta from scratch in the past, but didn’t like it… but that was before I lived in the south and learned to love grits. Methinks it’s time for another try.

  26. I buy polenta (the real thing) from my local Italian deli, and find it too much of a hassle to cook, but worth it on occasion. I find it takes about an hour in the pan, but then I pour it into an ordinary large dinner plate, let it cool into a shape, cut it into slices like a cake and grill it hard on a ridged pan. You must have the confidence not to move it around on the pan! That way you will get one neat set of black grill marks on each side burnt into the golden yellow porridge (for that’s what polenta is – a kind of porridge). I also (and this is perhaps overly decadent for a staple food) pour white truffle oil over it and grate a little parmesan before serving. This goes well with meat. Without the white truffle oil and cheese, it goes well with deep fried shellfish (frito misto di mare I think) which you must have if you ever go to Venice. I am still perfecting my version of this fish dish (it’s tricky to get right) but will posst when I have truly nailed it.

  27. I think the discussion of real vs. fake is ridiculous. If instant works for you, so be it. If you like it, I love it.

    Polenta is a great dish prepared all kinds of ways. I agree that the extra cooking time is worth it, but it is all going to the same place after all.

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