Well, winter never really made it here to Norcal, but there is nothing better on a foggy, rainy and/or chilly day than a bowl of polenta. And since we get plenty of fog, even in summer, polenta is a popular choice here at the farm. So popular, we didn’t think of it as something for the blog. But since Judy Rodgers passed, we think a lot about her and her polenta recipe. So we figured we would share.
The key to making polenta (cornmeal mush) is that it just isn’t all that hard. You don’t need any special technique and you don’t need to stir every second. You just need to be mindful and take your time. You will hear all sorts of polenta making
B.S. “advice” about stirring every second and how you drizzle the cornmeal, etc. Forget all that. Rodgers has you cook the polenta at low heat in a heavy-bottom pot, stir every few minutes to avoid scorching and hold in a double boiler to improve texture and allow quick service. And it works. We play frisbee and basketball with the kids while making this dish. We just duck in the kitchen every 5 minutes, give the pot a stir and then it is back to fun outside….nice.
The only real “challenge” here is how to add flavor to the polenta. Just butter and seasoning makes for a way better dish than you might expect. Parmesan and/or mascarpone cheese are common additions, and how Rodgers served it at Zuni. But we like to go a bit further and make polenta into a 1-dish meal. We like stirring in the parmesan, adding a soft-boiled egg, crumbled bacon and then topping with a bright salad of parsley or celery greens. Other good additions are braised greens, prosciutto, sautéed mushrooms, tomato jam and braised short ribs (yum).
And then we have the leftovers. Polenta sets in the fridge and then you can slice and fry it like french toast. This may be even better than the original dish and is perfect with just about any topping (but so good with a salad for a light lunch). So not only do you get one easy and tasty meal, you get 2 or 3. Delightful.
(Adapted from Judy Rodgers’ Zuni Cafe Cookbook)
Notes before you start:
- There are all sorts of “polenta” or cornmeal out there. We do suggest a “stone ground” cornmeal, but don’t break the bank. Old-school cornmeal in the box still works fine.
- The most important piece of gear here is the heavy-bottom pan. A heavy pan helps you avoid burning or scorching, spreads heat evenly and keeps you from constant stirring.
What you get: The definition of “comfort food”.
What you need: A heavy bottom pot and some time. A nice glass of red wine wouldn’t hurt either.
How Long? About an hour and a half. It is a very easy hour and a half.
- 5 cups water
- 1 cup polenta or cornmeal
- 2 teaspoons salt, or to taste
- Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
- Unsalted butter, to taste (optional, but good)
- Optional toppings: Parmesan cheese, mascarpone, bacon, pancetta, prosciutto, soft-boiled eggs, short ribs, sautéed mushrooms, braised or sautéed greens, tomato sauce or jam.
- Add the water to a heavy 2-quart saucepan. Whisk in the polenta. Heat the pot over medium heat until you reach a simmer, then lower the heat so the pot is just bubbling. Cook, uncovered for about 1 hour, stirring every few minutes, until the polenta is think but still fluid. Add a bit of water if the polenta gets too stiff. When done, add salt and butter to taste, if you like (we also like a grind of pepper)
- You can serve the polenta now. But it will be better if you transfer the polenta to a double boiler for at least 30 minutes. You can keep the polenta warm in the double boiler for hours (and for service over time). To avoid a skin forming on the polenta, tightly rap the bowl with plastic wrap.
- To serve, stir in parmesan cheese and then add any toppings you like.