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How to Cook Polenta
The term polenta refers both to Italian yellow or white cornmeal and to the cooked mixture made from it.  Although polenta, or cornmeal mush, is usually thought of as a northern Italian dish, it is served in southern Italy as well.  Immediately after cooking in liquid, polenta is soft and creamy.  It can be served as is, usually as a bed for stews or sauces.  Or it can be allowed to firm up in a shallow pan or bowl and then cut into slices.  These firm pieces can be grilled or fried and used in place of bread for crostini.  The pieces can also be layered and baked with a meat or vegetable sauce and cheese.

When purchasing polenta pay attention to the coarseness of the flour.  Coarse grinds result in a firmer and coarser polenta.  A finer cornmeal is more suitable for a creamy and soft polenta.  Besides the classic yellow cornmeal flour, a white cornmeal variety is available.  Made from peeled corn kernels, polenta bianca cooks faster and is used for sweet specialties.  There is also a quick cooking polenta that is made from precooked cornmeal that can be on the table in 5 minutes.
Basic Polenta

(Makes about 4 cups)


7 cups water
1 tablespoon salt
1-2/3 cups coarse-grained Italian yellow cornmeal


Bring the water to a boil in an  8 to 10 cup saucepan (preferably stainless steel or copper) over medium-high heat.  Add the salt.  Add the cornmeal in a very thin stream.  You should be able to see the individual grains spilling into the pot.  As you are adding the cornmeal, stir it with a whisk, and make sure the water is always boiling.  When you have added all the cornmeal, begin to stir it with a wooden spoon.  Polenta pops like lava when boiling, so exercise caution!  Stir continuously, bringing the mixture up from the bottom of the pot and loosening it from the sides.  The cornmeal becomes polenta in 35-45 minutes, when it forms a mass that pulls cleanly away from the sides of the pot.

Moisten the inside of a bowl with cold water.  Turn the polenta out of the pot into the bowl.  After 5 to 10 minutes, turn the bowl over onto a wooden board or large platter.  If serving it soft and hot, serve it at once.

For a creamier polenta:
Prepare the polenta as above but add about 1 cup of heavy cream when the polenta is almost done and continue stirring to incorporate it and then season with freshly grated nutmeg.

For a firm polenta:

If you are going to allow the polenta to become completely cool and firm and later slice it, do not put the hot polenta into a bowl.  Spread it on a wooden board or baking sheet to a thickness of about 3 inches or shape into a loaf.
When completely cool you can cut it into slices.   Fry the slices in butter or oil, brush them with oil and grill or broil them, or top with cheese and bake until crispy.

If you are planning to slice polenta and grill, bake, or fry it, you must make it at least an hour in advance.

Polenta will keep for several days in the refrigerator.  Keep it whole and wrap it with foil or plastic wrap.
Serving Polenta Hot and Soft

* With butter and grated Parmesan cheese melted into it, it can be eaten alone.

* Soften a creamy Gorgonzola cheese to room temperature and blend it into a hot, very soft polenta.

* Polenta can provide a bed for shrimp or other seafood that has been sautéed with a little garlic and extra virgin olive oil.

* Polenta  is a wonderful side dish with any stewed, braised or roasted meat or poultry.  It is desirable to have enough juices available from the meat to lightly sauce the polenta.
When Polenta is Allowed to Cool

*  It can be sliced and grilled and served alongside a fried mixture of seafood,  meat, or poultry and vegetables.

*  It can be sliced and baked with a variety of fillings, similar to lasagne

*  It can be cut into shapes and fried crisp in vegetable oil and served with salads, alongside meats or before dinner with drinks.
Quick-Cooking Polenta  

Many Italians consider using instant polenta from a box to be pure heresy.
While it may not be your best choice for creamy polenta served with butter or cheese, it is an acceptable solution for polenta that will be cooked a second time; either fried, grilled or baked and served with a sauce or other ingredients.


6 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
1 (13 ounce) package instant polenta


Bring the water to a vigorous boil, add the salt, and let the polenta fall into the pot in a steady stream, while whisking.  Cook, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, for 5 minutes or until the mixture comes together but is still soft.  Pour onto an oiled baking sheet and spread it into a smooth flat rectangle.  Allow to cool until firm, about 10 minutes.

Polenta Crostini

Polenta can be used as bread when it comes to creating crostini, those little appetizers that are the prefect base for your choice of toppings.  This recipe makes about 25 pieces.


1 Recipe Basic Polenta or Quick-Cooking Polenta
Olive oil


Begin by making polenta and spreading it into a flat rectangle about 1/2 inch thick.  Allow it to cool until firm.  Cut the polenta into 2-inch squares.  Brush them lightly with olive oil. Then choose one of the following methods.

To grill:  Grill them until lightly crisp, about 4 minutes each side

To broil: Broil them 4 to 6 inches from the heat for 4-5 minutes each side

To deep-fry: Fry them in 1/2-inch vegetable oil over medium heat until golden brown on both sides

To bake:  Bake them at 400 degrees F for about 8-10 minutes.
More Information about Polenta:

Pasta had become so universally accepted as the national dish of Italy that it is hard to believe that perhaps just 2 generations ago, pasta was foreign to certain regions of Italy.  In the Veneto, Friuli, and Lombardy regions, it was
polenta that was the backbone of culinary culture.  Preparing polenta was quite a ritual.  The copper kettle, or paiolo, was kept hanging on a hook in the center of the fireplace.  The hearth would often accommodate a bench on which the family sat as they watched the stream of cornmeal being poured in the boiling water.  Then they waited for the constant stirring of the cook to transform it into a meal.  The cornmeal became polenta in 35-45 minutes.

Polenta is flexible and forgiving.  You must guard against lumps but it is actually difficult to ruin polenta.  You will see cooking times that vary from 30 to 45 minutes.  The freshness of the polenta, the type of corn from which it is made, the coarseness of the grain, its moisture content, and how it has been stored all influence how long polenta will take to become tender.  You cannot rush the process by turning up the heat.  The simple way to check if it is done is to taste it.  The grains should be tender with a distinct flavor of corn and it should be the proper consistency, neither too thick nor too thin. 

Polenta is so versatile that it can be eaten as an antipasto, an entrée, or as a side dish. To serve soft and creamy polenta, the consistency should be that of a thick soup.  To serve it as a side dish, you want it slightly thicker.  Polenta that will be cooled and cut into shapes requires a longer cooking time.

In Italy, the best polenta is made from cornmeal that is freshly ground within the 2-3 week harvest period.  Italian long-cooking polenta has a fine, even grind, that has a better flavor and cooks to a smoother, more even consistency than American cornmeal or quick-cooking varieties.
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Here's a great gift for the serious cook who's been known to stand for 30 minutes stirring a mass of polenta in any old pot or pan. This polished, unlined copper pot is designed to cook polenta quickly and evenly. Copper provides exceptional heat conductivity to ensure even cooking no matter what the creation. The pot's flared shape allows a wooden paddle to scrape the bottom and sides cleanly so polenta doesn't stick and scorch. A gorgeous pot to display!
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