“Please, Sir, I want some more,” states Oliver Twist in Charles Dickens’ classic.
More what? Gruel, of course!
Gruel was a truly unpleasant food, a weak and runny meal consisting of oatmeal or cornmeal boiled in milk or water. It was commonly served to prisoners, the institutionalized, orphans, and the poor back in the 18th century.
It was not something to look forward to. In fact, the expression “grueling” (in effect, a punishing ordeal) came from its very unpleasantness.
Even common before Roman times, gruel was made of any number of cooked grain “mushes”, but once Europeans brought back maize (corn) to their continent in the 16th century, things began to change ever so slowly. Over centuries, better cooks and chefs helped move this very simple dish from the wooden bowls of the poor to the white china of the rich.
Now called polenta (from the Latin “polenta,” loosely translated as a pollen/dust of grain), polenta is still made as it was in the days of Oliver Twist, which is simply ground corn and a liquid (usually water, stock, or milk), slowly cooked and served as a starch. The resulting mixture can either be served as pudding-like, soft polenta (like southern grits, a close relative) or poured into a tray or loaf pan and allowed to cool into a firm “cake,” which can then be sliced and pan-fried or grilled.
Since the days of old, chefs have found many creative ways to season and improve polenta’s taste and appeal and have partnered it with any number of garnishes and proteins, including shrimp, pork, and poultry.
There’s nothing complicated about polenta. From an ingredients perspective, it couldn’t be simpler. If there is a gripe about polenta, it is likely that the classic recipe requires long, slow cooking in order to cook the cornmeal properly without scorching it. The classic risotto (a rice dish) is similar.
When seasoned and cooked properly, polenta is a fabulous recipe and one that is a welcome change from potatoes, rice, and pasta as a starch accompaniment. In fact, for my money, it’s the ONLY choice for certain dishes.
Polenta can be made from either yellow or white cornmeal and can be prepared from meal that is ground very fine or rather course. It DOES, however, require coarser corn meal to be cooked longer and with more patience.
Typically, polenta is slowly simmered in four to five times its volume of liquid for about 45 minutes, with near-constant stirring using (classically) a large wooden stick called a canella. This continues until it becomes nearly thick enough to support the stick on its own. From there, additional ingredients can be added once the polenta is cooked.
Cooked polenta can be used as a base for toppings, such as sauces, cheeses, vegetables, and meat, much the same way that pasta can. In Northern Italy, it is even more popular than pasta is. Under various names, it’s also very common in countries such as Mexico, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Romania.
Alternatively, instant polenta is quick cooking (like similar oatmeal products), but it is widely considered inferior to polenta made from coarser, unprocessed cornmeal.
Cooked polenta can also be shaped into balls, patties, or sticks, and then fried in oil, baked, or grilled until golden brown. Fried polenta is called crostini di polenta or polenta frittata.
Basic Polenta Recipe: Serves 4
6 Cups Water or Stock (broth)
2 tsp Kosher Salt
1 ¾ Cups Yellow Cornmeal
3 TBSP Butter
- Bring 6 cups of water to a boil in a heavy, large saucepan.
- Add 2 teaspoons of salt.
- Gradually whisk in the cornmeal.
- Reduce the heat to low, and cook until the mixture thickens and the cornmeal is tender, stirring often, for about 15 minutes.
- Turn off the heat. Add the butter and stir until melted.
So, that’s soft polenta. To make firm polenta, just use this same recipe and pour it into a buttered or vegetable oil sprayed shallow tray or loaf pan. Then, refrigerate it until cool and firm. Another trick I use often is to save my wrappers from sticks of butter and line my pan with them. It adds extra flavor to the polenta and is a wise investment.
Soft polenta is typically spooned into a shallow-rim soup bowl and topped with a garnish. Here’s a simple but classic example.
Soft Polenta with Pulled Rotisserie Chicken, Garlic-Seared Mushrooms, Chopped Tomatoes, Asparagus, and Sweet Onions with Rosemary
1 Rotisserie Chicken (pull meat into 1” pieces. Save all juices from the rotisserie chicken and simmer them with all resulting bones in 3 cups of water for 1 hour. Strain then reduce that broth to a concentrated, syrupy consistency
2 TBSP Butter
4 Cloves Garlic, Chopped
½ Cup Sweet Onion, Chopped
8 Spears Asparagus, Cut in 1” Pieces
12 Lg. White Mushrooms, Quartered
4 Roma Tomatoes, Seeded, & Chopped
1 tsp Fresh Rosemary, Chopped
To Taste Salt & Pepper
- In a medium sauté pan, sauté garlic and onions until softened (3 to 4 minutes).
- Add asparagus and sauté 1 minute.
- Add mushrooms and sauté until mushrooms are softened.
- Add tomato and rosemary. Cook slowly for 3 to 5 minutes.
- Season mixture with salt & pepper.
- Add approximately 1 cup of soft polenta to the bottom of a rim soup bowl, and top with ½ of the above sauté mixture and then ¼ of the pulled rotisserie chicken.
- Drizzle with some of the reduced chicken broth.
A recipe for firm polenta is below.
Pan-Seared Polenta Napoleon with Fresh Mozzarella, Roma Tomato, Fresh Basil, and Vodka Sauce
- Prepare the Basic Polenta Recipe and pour it into a small cake pan in order to have a thickness of approximately ¾”. Cool and (once firm) cut 2 squares about 4” x 4” (or a similar size if you punch out round shapes with a cookie cutter).
- Heat a non-stick fry pan with a couple of tablespoons of vegetable oil, and pan fry the polenta pieces on both sides until medium brown. Reserve cooked pieces on a small cookie sheet, so they can be reheated as needed for plate up.
- Heat vodka sauce (or any pasta sauce) estimating ½ cup per serving.
- Layer the polenta (still using the cookie sheet), beginning with one piece of polenta on the bottom followed by a topping of ¼” thick-sliced fresh mozzarella, a few very thin slices of Roma tomato, and a few leaves of fresh basil.
- Place another piece of the polenta on top and bake in a 375 F oven approximately 20 minutes or until the mozzarella cheese is melting.
- Plate the finished layer and cooked polenta Napoleon. Top with the heated vodka/pasta sauce. *Additionally, you can add a sprinkle of Parmesan or Romano cheese.
Polenta is indeed a culinary rags-to-riches story of a simple, peasant dish self-made into a rich, elegant meal fit for a king.