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Polenta: Easy and Versatile
By Charlie Burke

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Polenta is classic, elemental food, made of cornmeal, water and salt. Like pasta,
it is a blank slate, taking on the flavors and nuances of the many dishes with
which it is served. Served soft from the pot, its creamy mellow flavor is perfect
with the sauces from braises or stews. Spread into a one to two inch thick layer
on a sheet pan or cutting board and allowed to cool, it can be cut into squares
and sautéed in olive oil to form a golden crust or brushed with olive oil and
broiled or grilled over charcoal to be served, sprinkled with cheese or herbs,
with fish dishes or roasts. I frequently serve mushroom ragout over either soft
polenta or grilled slices for a satisfying vegetarian meal or layer polenta slices
with cheese and tomato sauce to bake like lasagna. In Italy, the combinations
are endless; as with pasta, every cook and region features unique
combinations, with grated cheese and herbs being occasionally added to the
cornmeal as it cooks

Every cookbook I’ve read, including those by Marcella Hazan, the Julia Child
of Italian cooking, stresses the importance of constantly stirring polenta for as
long as forty minutes. Several years ago I found that, although it cannot be
ignored, polenta needs only an occasional stir and usually cooks in about a half
hour. I concluded that polenta recipes had been handed down and accepted
without question for generations. Who, after all, would doubt their Nonna’s
recipe for making a beloved family tradition? I was amused, then, to read in
“Heat”, a book about Mario Batali and Italian food traditions* that in Batali’s
restaurant the polenta pot bubbles away untended, with passersby giving it an
occasional stir. Although many home cooks make fresh pasta, far fewer attempt
polenta, perhaps deterred by the daunting recipes. It is important that the
cornmeal be added slowly to boiling water and stirred with a whisk to prevent
clumping, but after that, if stirred occasionally and cooked at a slow simmer,
the results are the same as if constantly stirred. I prefer coarsely ground
cornmeal and have had great results with the stone ground organic cornmeal
from the
Littleton Grist Mill in Littleton, New Hampshire

Four to six servings

1 ½ cups coarsely ground corn meal
6 cups water
2 teaspoons kosher or sea salt

Bring water to a boil in a heavy bottomed 4 -6 quart pot. Add salt and slowly
add polenta while whisking. Cook over low heat at a slow simmer, stirring
every 4 – 5 minutes, preferably with a flat wooden spatula. As the polenta
thickens, it should bubble slowly, releasing steam though the thick bubbles.
Cook in this manner for approximately 25 minutes, stirring more frequently
toward the end of cooking. The polenta is done when it pulls away from the
side of the pot when stirred and is slow to flow back into the path of the spoon.

Serve immediately with sauce, olive oil, or butter with grated parmesan cheese
or spread onto a flat surface, smoothing it to 1 -2 inches of thickness with a
spatula moistened with water. When cooled, it can be cut into pieces for
sautéing, grilling or broiling. Polenta is as versatile as pasta, so incorporate it
into your Italian recipes and enjoy this satisfying peasant fare.

*Heat, Bill Buford, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2006

About the author: An organic farmer and avid cook, writer Charlie Burke is the vice
president of the
New Hampshire Farmer'sMarket Association, president of the NH Farm
to Restaurant Connection and helps run the Sanbornton (NH) Farmers' Market.  Along
with his wife, Joanne, Charlie grows certified organic herbs, greens and berries at Weather
Hill Farm in Sanbornton, NH.  
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