Vegan Grandma

Saturday, December 02, 2006


I have been experimenting with polenta the past couple of days because my recent dental work meant I had to eat soft foods for a few days. When I was a child, I ate cornmeal mush. My mother put the leftover cornmeal mush in the refrigerator where it became firm. The next day she cut it into squares, fried it, and served it with syrup. I didn’t know I was eating a typical Italian dish called polenta which today is an item on the menus of upscale restaurants.

Polenta is a dish made by cooking cornmeal in boiling water, It is a is a traditional staple food throughout much of northern Italy. Polenta is served either soft or it is cooled to make it firm, then cut into slices to bake, grill or fry. often other ingredients are added to make a variety of dishes. When boiled, polenta has a smooth creamy texture.

I think polenta is really good, and you can be creative with it, which makes it fun. Here is a recipe for basic polenta, and some ways of serving it.

Basic Polenta

4 cups water

1 cup stone-ground cornmeal

salt to taste

In a large saucepan, ( one large enough to allow for swelling of the cornmeal, and the heaving and bubbling as it cooks), bring the water and salt to a boil over medium heat. The pot should only be half full, or the water might overflow when you add the cornmeal. Sprinkle in the cornmeal in a steady stream with one hand while whisking with the other. Lower the heat to medium, and whisk until the polenta thickens enough to pull away from the pan and resists stirring, 30 or 40 minutes.

Or combine the cornmeal, salt, and water in a large saucepan, the bring to a boil, stirring almost constantly. When it comes to a boil, reduce heat to medium and whisk until the polenta thickens enough to pull away from the pan and it resists stirring, 30 or 40 minutes.

Just before the polenta becomes too firm to stir, you can stir in any of the following:

Two tablespoons of olive oil, 2-3 cloves of minced garlic, and a quarter cup of chopped sundried tomatoes. (If the tomatoes are packed in oil, make sure to drain them first.)

Half a cup of canned sweet corn kernels and a quarter cup of sliced green Spanish olives.

You can serve polenta topped with your favorite tomato sauce or with an assortment of grilled vegetables.

Polenta recipes include cooking it with mushrooms, vegetables or tomato sauce.

To make firm polenta for grilling or frying, spread the cooked polenta on a baking sheet and let it cool until it is firm.

Chilled, firm polenta may be served cut into triangles alongside chili or other hearty stews.
Leftover polenta may be cut into strips or triangles, coated in seasoned bread crumbs and vegan Parmesan cheese, and fried in olive oil.

Cooked polenta can also be shaped into balls, patties, or sticks and fried in oil until it is golden brown and crispy.

Try pouring the just cooked, soft polenta in a non-stick baking sheet and letting it cool completely. Brush it lightly with extra-virgin olive oil mixed with one finely minced garlic clove. Brown under a boiler for one minute, and sprinkle with minced fresh basil.

To grill firm polenta, cut 1/4 inch thick squares of polenta with a pizza cutter. Brush the squares with olive oil and grill over a hot fire until browned on both sides.

To fry firm polenta slice1/4 inch thick squares of polenta into narrow strips. Fry in hot oil until golden brown and crusty. Drain well and serve hot.

To bake firm polenta, place ½ inch thick slices in a single layer on an oiled baking sheet (or a baking sheet lined with parchment baking paper), and bake at 350 degrees until heated.

Some Interesting Things About Polenta

The word "polenta" can also refer to the ground cornmeal, sometimes called "Italian cornmeal".
The grain can be either coarse or fine.

Unless you buy the stone ground cornmeal (sometimes called water ground) , the nutritious germ has been removed to extend the shelf life. Whole grain cornmeal that has the germ intact has black and red spots in it. Whole grain cornmeal also has more of a true corn taste than the quick-cooking corm meal. The whole grain cornmeal should be stored in the refrigerator where it will keep for a year.

Cornmeal is not corn flour. In the United States, corn flour is very finely ground corn, and is not well suited for making polenta, because it would be too pasty. In the United Kingdom, corn flour refers to the white starch from corn, what is called "corn starch" in The United States.

Polenta is made with either yellow or white cornmeal. Yellow is the most common. Early forms of polenta were made with such starches as the grain farro and chestnut flour, both of which are still used in small quantity today.

Polenta is very similar to corn grits, a common dish in the cuisine of the Southern United States. The difference is that grits are usually made from coarsely ground hominy .When cooked, grits and polenta both have smooth textures.

Polenta is often cooked in a huge copper pot known in Italian as paiolo, a huge copper pot without a tin lining, and with a convex bottom.

Polenta is traditionally a slowly cooked dish, sometimes taking an hour or longer to cook. Instant and precooked polenta have become popular in Italy and elsewhere. You can find pre-cooked polenta in major supermarkets in the United States.

A good way to prevent lumps in polenta is to cook it in a double boiler. This takes longer but requires less stirring. Stir with a whisk every five minutes at the beginning, every three minutes as it thickens, and constantly towards the end as it becomes thick enough to resist you.

You need more liquid to cook cornmeal that most grains. The ratio of water to cornmeal should br 4 to 1. If you use too little water, the polenta will be dry and lumpy.

Polenta made with finely ground cornmeal forms lumps easily. In order to avoid this, add 1/5 of the cornmeal to the salted water while it is still cold, mixing with a whisk. Once the cornmeal is blended with the water, cover, in order to prevent boiling polenta from splashing, and let boil for 10 minutes. Then, stirring constantly, add the remaining cornmeal following the procedures described in basic method.

To store polenta, cover it with plastic wrap and refrigerate for up to three days.

To clean the polenta pot, fill the pot with cold water and let it sit overnight. In the morning the polenta should pull away easily.

Information Sources:

World Vegetarian, by Madhur Jaffrey, published by Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York

The Essential Vegetarian Cookbook, Your Guide to the Best Foods on Earth, by Diana Shaw, published by Clarkson Potter Publishers, New York

Brilliant Food Tips and Cooking Tricks, by David Joachim, published by Rodale


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