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Perfecting Polenta A Few Tricks Can Help You Master A Versatile Classic

Elaine Tait Philadelphia Inquirer

Welcome to polenta land.

And no, I’m not talking Italy.

The rustic recipe (cornmeal and water are the main ingredients), once considered so homey that the only time you saw it was on an Italian family’s kitchen table, has found its way into a multitude of dishes, some downright fancy.

Suddenly it’s on the menu at trendy restaurants and on the pages of award-winning cookbooks.

Here’s why: Playing with polenta can be fun. More to the point, it’s downright inexpensive fun.

You can mound polenta, mold it, slice it, or shape it with cookie cutters (how about hearts for Valentine’s Day?)

You can serve it soupy with dried fruits and syrup for breakfast. Make it firmer and add some butter and flavorings, and it’s a great budget lunch.

Fry polenta crisp and it’s a snack. Grill it for a great barbecue accompaniment. Top it with something as simple as cheese and you’ve a quick, easy entree vegetarians will applaud. Add something scrumptious like meat or mushrooms, and you’ve an entree fancy enough to put on a upscale menu.

Because basic polenta costs so little to make, if you mess up you haven’t blown a week’s food budget.

And you will mess up. Almost everyone does.

My first batch of plain polenta was made from an Italian product that said the cornmeal was precooked. What that meant was that it would cook in just five minutes. What I thought it meant, however, was that I could be less than scrupulously careful stirring the grains into the boiling water.

Which brings me to lesson No. 1: If you’re making polenta the classic way, you must - I repeat, must - stir the meal slowly into the boiling water. What you get when you aren’t careful is what looks like a bunch of mushy cornmeal grapes that nothing, not even a food processor, can make totally smooth.

Lesson No. 2: If you can possibly avoid it, don’t make polenta the classic way. You will find yourself standing at the range, getting tired, while you stir, stir, stir until it cooks to the point where the polenta forms a mass that comes away from the sides of the pan.

That could take an hour. You have better things to do with your time.

Lesson No. 3: Let Barbara Kafka teach you to make polenta in the microwave. Kafka’s book “Microwave Gourmet” (Morrow) told how to make the most tender, buttery polenta imaginable with just a couple of stirs.

Her secret is to stir water into cornmeal in a microwave dish. Microwave for six minutes, then stir. Microwave for six minutes more, stir again. Turn off the microwave, add butter and salt. Let stand for three to five minutes or until all the water is absorbed.

Place the cooked polenta in a buttered loaf pan and butter the top surface of the polenta lightly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm. Not only is this easy to make, it’s absolutely delicious.

Lesson No. 4: Although there are prepared polentas on the market (they come refrigerated in rolls), they’re considerably more expensive than homemade. Moreover, the three I tried had an unpleasant, slightly sour flavor.

You can flavor your own basic polenta with fresh herbs, cheese, onions, mushrooms, bacon bits or almost anything you like. Just add the ingredients after the cornmeal has absorbed the liquid but before it has been allowed to firm up.

Lesson No. 5: Have fun. My best polenta idea was using plain buttered polenta slices, cut with an evergreen-tree cookie cutter, as a base for my homemade chili. I heated the chili-topped polenta on a microwavable plate, then sprinkled it with jalapeno cheese, chopped fresh cilantro and a dab of sour cream. It was as good and eye-catching a dish as you’d find, priced high, at your favorite fancy eatery.

If you want your child to eat polenta, cut slices with animal cookie cutters. Or spell out a word or name with letters you’ve carved from firm polenta.

Children generally prefer simpler toppings. Melt some mild cheese over the fancy shapes you’ve made. Or use some tomato sauce from a jar.

Lesson No. 6: Polenta is a born mixer. Although we think of it as Italian, it wasn’t made with cornmeal until the Italians got that grain from America.

Dream up your own combinations. My own favorites are Mexican dishes where I substituted cookie-cutter circles of grilled polenta for the corn tortillas in recipes.

But even a cuisine that doesn’t normally use much corn - Chinese, for example - can be polenta-compatible. Pepper steak on a mound of hot plain polenta is just one example of an offbeat but pleasing Asian pairing.

For a French hybrid, serve soft, hot polenta topped with rich, creamed mushrooms. Or sauteed chicken livers. Or both.

But you get the idea.

Have fun!

Kafka’s Soft Polenta

4 cups water

3/4 cup yellow or white cornmeal

2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup softened Gorgonzola cheese or butter

Combine water, cornmeal and salt in a 2-quart souffle dish. Microwave, uncovered, on High power for 6 minutes. Stir well, cover loosely with paper toweling and cook 6 minutes more. Remove from oven. Uncover and stir in butter, pepper and cheese. Let stand 3 minutes. Serve hot.

Note: If using small oven, cook uncovered 9 minutes; cover loosely and cook for 9 minutes more. For spicy polenta, use Monterey Jack cheese and add a stemmed, seeded, finely chopped jalapeno pepper.

Kafka’s Firm Polenta

4 cups water

1-1/4 cups yellow or white cornmeal

2 teaspoons kosher salt

4 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Combine water, cornmeal and salt in 2-quart souffle dish. Microwave, uncovered, on High power for 12 minutes, stirring once. Remove from microwave, stir in 3 tablespoons butter and add pepper. Let stand 3 minutes.

Lightly grease a 7- by 4- by 2-inch loaf pan with 1/2 tablespoon butter. Pour polenta into loaf pan and brush lightly with remaining butter. Let stand until cool. Cover and refrigerate until firm.

To fry or grill, slice 1/2-inch thick and let dry on a wire rack for about 20 minutes. Brush with olive oil and fry or grill until crusty.

Classic Method Polenta

1-1-2 quarts water

2 teaspoons salt

1-1/2 cups cornmeal

In a 4-quart saucepan, bring water and salt to a boil. Slowly pour cornmeal into boiling water, stirring constantly to keep mixture smooth. Reduce heat and simmer, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes or more or until polenta is thick enough to support a spoon upright. Serve at once with gravy, butter, cheese or tomato sauce. Or cool and slice to fry or broil.

Yield: 6 servings.

Coo-Coo

This dish from Barbados is usually served with meat dishes such as roast pork or chicken.

1 (10-ounce) package frozen okra, thawed

2 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons butter

Combine okra, water and salt in heavy 2-quart pan. Bring to boil. Reduce heat and pour cornmeal in a slow stream into okra and water, stirring constantly. Continue cooking, stirring constantly, for 5 minutes or until mixture is thick enough to leave pan sides and bottom in a solid mass.

Spoon onto a serving plate and shape into a cake about 1 inch thick. Spread top with softened butter. Serve at once.

Yield: 4 to 6 servings.

Mushrooms in Cream

2 pounds fresh mushrooms (use a blend of button and wild mushrooms, if available)

Juice of 1 lemon

2 tablespoons butter, melted

2 tablespoons olive oil

2 shallots, finely chopped

1 cup heavy cream

Salt, pepper to taste

Soft polenta (recipe above)

2 tablespoons finely chopped parsley

Wipe mushrooms with damp paper towel and slice thickly. Toss in lemon juice.

Saute mushrooms with shallots, covered, in melted butter and oil for 20 minutes. Add cream and simmer for 5 more minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Serve over soft polenta and garnish with parsley.

Yield: 6 servings.

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