Polenta is one of the three great staple starches of Italian cuisine, along with risotto and pasta. Deriving from the Roman-era "pulmentum," a gruel of various grains and legumes, it has been a sturdy, filling peasant food for most of its existence. After the discovery of the new world, corn became the most common grain for making polenta. Although special coarse cornmeal is available for polenta making, any cornmeal can be used.
The cornmeal most traditionally used for polenta is coarse, about the same size as cracked wheat. It was well-suited to the long cooking technique used for centuries, which gave time for the large pieces of grain to fully cook and soften. In modern Italy, finer cornmeal is often used to shorten cooking time, with a smaller quantity of the traditional coarse meal added for texture. In the Friuli region of northern Italy, finely ground white cornmeal is the traditional choice. There is even finely milled, par-cooked "instant" polenta for cooks in a hurry. Each of these makes acceptable polenta.
Traditional Polenta Method
The traditional method of cooking polenta takes time and a lot of stirring, but is actually very easy. The cornmeal is mixed with four times its volume of water, broth or milk, and is stirred for a period of hours over low heat. The starches in the corn gelatinize and soften as they cook, creating a smooth texture and rich, mellow corn flavor. The longer the polenta cooks the richer the corn flavor becomes. The finished dish can be served hot and fresh, like mashed potatoes, or cooled and sliced for frying or broiling.
Easy Alternative Methods
Slow cookers reproduce the effect of an earthenware crock near the embers and are ideal for cooking polenta with minimal hands-on time. The slow-cooker method involves placing the corn and cooking liquid in the cooker, setting it to low and stirring it occasionally for the next four to six hours until the polenta is done. Polenta can also be cooked in a covered pot or baking dish in the oven, at 200 to 250 degrees Fahrenheit, stirring occasionally. If you eat polenta frequently, online vendors of Italian products sell electric polenta cookers and polenta-stirring devices that attach to a pot.
Polenta can be as simple or as elegant as you want to make it. You can serve soft, fresh polenta straight from the pot with stew, slow-cooked meats or dishes with lots of sauce. Topped with cheese, soft polenta is a blandly pleasant food that children love. Cooled polenta can be cut into any shape for attractive presentations on a plate. Deep fry polenta sticks and serve with ranch dressing as a dipping sauce. You can even bake polenta slices layered with tomato sauce and cheese for an easy meal, or serve polenta wedges with a salad and grilled fish or chicken for a light, satisfying summer meal.