In Northern Italy, polenta means slowpoke, a reference to the lengthy process early chefs went through to make this thick porridge. Polenta has been around for thousands of years, but it wasn't until Christopher Columbus discovered the New World that corn products became the primary ingredient. Confusion over the difference between cornmeal and polenta arises from the fact that manufacturers often package certain types of cornmeal as polenta, possibly so that they can charge extra for a "specialty" item. Generally speaking, polenta is the name of the dish, and cornmeal is what you make the dish from.
Types of Cornmeal
Supermarkets carry a wide variety of cornmeal. It comes in various colors, such as white, yellow, red and blue. Typically, the yellow type works best for polenta. Cornmeal also comes in fine, medium and coarse grinds. Use either medium or coarse grind for polenta. Polenta made with fine ground cornmeal has a slightly floury taste. Medium-ground cornmeal cooks faster than coarse ground.
When cooking polenta, there are two basic consistencies: creamy and thick. The one you choose depends on what you will serve with the polenta. Creamy polenta works well for breakfast and for dishes that will be baked, such as casseroles. Use a lower heat and a longer cooking time to produce a creamy polenta with the consistency of a thick soup. Thick polenta, which should stay on the spoon without running off, works well as a side dish. When cooled, thick polenta becomes solid enough to be cut into shapes.
Vegetarian Polenta Meals
Serve creamy polenta topped with butter and maple syrup or honey for a delicious vegetarian breakfast. For dinner, bake creamy polenta with grated butternut squash and cheddar cheese for a delicious casserole or loaf. Or serve thick, warm polenta with a tomato sauce or a bean soup. For a more traditional Italian option, pour the thick polenta onto a wooden board. Let it cool slightly and top with cheese, tomatoes, cooked vegetables or beans.
Polenta Meals for Meat Lovers
For dinner, serve a warm, thick polenta with meat stew or with grilled beef or chicken. Cool thick polenta, cut it into squares and fry the squares in olive oil before adding the meat. Make a polenta casserole by baking creamy polenta with cheese and sausage. Or pour warm, thick polenta onto a wooden board. After the polenta cools slightly, top it with cheese, tomatoes, cooked vegetables and sausage. Serve polenta dishes with a fresh green salad and light ranch dressing.