Serve this gluten-free goodie as a side, or as the bed for a saucy main
Polenta is the food world’s shape-shifter. Essentially cornmeal porridge, it’s a dish that can be served any number of ways, any time of day. All good—except you have to cook it first. And traditional recipes are labor-intensive, calling for nonstop stirring for 30 minutes or more. How exciting.
So imagine our delight when we discovered a foolproof way to make polenta that requires little more than measuring out the ingredients. And that cooks virtually unattended. All the great flavor without any of the tedium. Sign us up for that.
Serve this dish at your next dinner party, and the guests will think you spent hours slaving in the kitchen. We won’t tell if you won’t.
Recipe: Easy No-Stir Oven Polenta
OK, we lied in the recipe title: You actually do stir this polenta a couple of times. Once at the beginning, to incorporate all the ingredients. Then again about 10 minutes before it’s finished. But that’s it (so please forgive our little fib).
The traditional method of making polenta involves much more stirring and attention (though it’s a myth that you need to stir it constantly). When you make polenta on the stovetop, stirring prevents it from sticking to the bottom of the cooking pot and burning. It also keeps a hard skim coat from forming on the top. If you use the oven method we recommend here, you don’t need to worry about either of those problems.
BTW, we’ve seen other recipes for making polenta that require little or no stirring, including methods for making it in a double boiler or microwave. But we like this oven method the best.
What kind of polenta should you use in this recipe? No need to buy fancy imported stuff. In fact, you can make this dish with regular old cornmeal. Look for cornmeal (or polenta) that has a coarse or medium grind. Stoneground is preferable. You can buy instant polenta, but it doesn’t taste all that great. We suggest avoiding it.
Our recipe is based on one that Martha Rose Shulman presents in Mediterranean Harvest.
Prep time for this dish is 5 minutes. Cooking and resting time adds 1¼ hours (most of it unattended).
This recipe yields 4 to 5 main-course servings, or twice that number of side servings. See Notes for instructions on doubling the recipe.
- 1 cup coarse-ground polenta or cornmeal (can substitute medium-ground)
- 4 cups water (can substitute milk or stock; see Notes)
- 1 teaspoon Kosher salt (about half that if using regular table salt; or to taste)
- 1 tablespoon unsalted butter (optional, but recommended)
- ~½ cup (or more) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (optional, but wonderful; see Notes)
- additional grated Parmigiano-Reggiano for garnish if serving the polenta as a side (optional)
- chopped parsley or other herb for garnish if serving the polenta as a side (optional)
- Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.
- Add the polenta, water, salt, and butter (if using) to a 2-quart cooking pot or oven-proof serving dish. Stir to combine the ingredients, then place the cooking pot in the preheated oven. Set a timer for 1 hour.
- At the hour mark, remove the cooking pot. Stir the polenta with a fork. If using cheese, add it now, then stir it in. Return the cooking pot to the oven. Set the timer for 10 minutes.
- When the timer goes off, remove the cooking pot from the oven and let the polenta sit for 5 minutes (but see Notes). Then serve. (If serving polenta as a side, we like to garnish it with extra Parmigiano-Reggiano, plus sometimes a sprinkling of chopped parsley.)
- The polenta will be soft and creamy when you remove it from the oven. But as it cools, it will set up and become firm. We suggest letting the polenta sit for just a few minutes, but you can serve it straight from the oven if you want (it will be even softer and creamier).
- Soft polenta makes a particularly nice bed for a saucy stew or ragu, and we love its texture. You can also dish it up as a side.
- If you allow the polenta to cool and set up, you can later cut it into slices, then grill or sauté them. If you’re going this route, we suggest doing the following when the polenta is finished baking: Pour the cooked polenta onto a cutting board or a slab of marble. Shape it into a loaf or a large, flat rectangle. Let it cool completely (it will form a solid block). Then cut it into small squares or rectangles, and sauté or broil them.
- Want to double this recipe? Easy: Double all the ingredients. Use a 3- to 4-quart cooking container. Bake for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Take the polenta from the oven and stir, then return it to the oven for 10 minutes. Remove the polenta, let it sit for 5 minutes, then serve (or just serve immediately).
- We like to make polenta with water (the flavor is great as is). But substituting half water and half milk (or using all milk) yields a richer dish. Or you could experiment with chicken or beef stock. We have tried these variations, BTW, and always return to water.
- We suggest Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for this dish, but other types of cheese work well too. Gorgonzola is spectacular. Cheddar works well. Or try a mix of cheeses.
- BTW, if you decide to make polenta on the stovetop, we recommend increasing the amount of liquid somewhat. Our oven recipe calls for a 4:1 ratio of liquid to polenta. Because you’ll have more evaporation on top of the stove, we recommend at least a 5:1 ratio. If you want a stovetop recipe, check the back of the polenta package. But be prepared to do some stirring.
- You do get a slightly creamier polenta by using the stovetop method (and more liquid). But the operative word here is “slightly.” And if you serve a sauce over the polenta, you won’t even notice the difference.
- Although soft polenta makes a nice side dish, we prefer to use it as the bed for a sauce-covered main course. Any Italian ragu works nicely as a topping, particularly our Pork Ragu.
- Polenta also makes a nice bed for a rich meat stew like Boeuf Bourguignon. Or even a Chinese dish like Red-Braised Beef. Or top it with roast meat or sautéed fish. The possibilities are endless.
- The cooked polenta that you can buy in stores (often in plastic tubes) is the firm type— and not all that tasty. If you’ve never had soft polenta, you have a treat in store. Its flavor is better, and the texture is a delight.
- Polenta as we know it today is almost always made from corn (maize). Maize, of course, is one of the New World’s gifts to the Old. Polenta is now an extremely common dish in northern Italy, and it can also be found in other parts of Europe.
- Italians were actually making a form of polenta before maize was introduced to Europe—they just didn't make it with corn. You can make polenta with grains like barley or millet, or legumes like chickpeas (that’s not common today, however).
- Polenta is a close relative of grits, a dish that is popular in the American south. The big difference is that American grits are usually made from hominy—dried maize that has been treated with an alkali (often slaked lime). Also, grits often are made from white corn, while polenta usually is made from yellow.
- BTW, if you mix cheddar cheese with polenta, then top it with shrimp sautéed in butter and garlic (Scampi style), you’ve got Italian-style shrimp and grits. Good stuff, too.
Lou Lights: St. Louis used to be Coffee-Central in the US
With this post we’re introducing a new, occasional feature for the blog: Lou Lights, in which we discuss highlights of the culinary scene in St Louis, Missouri (where we live). In this post, we discuss a great new exhibit on coffee at our local history museum.
“Wow,” said Mrs. Kitchen Riffs. “What a fun visit last weekend to The Missouri History Museum.”
“Their new special exhibit is outstanding!” I said. “Coffee: The World in Your Cup & St. Louis in Your Cup taught me so much I didn’t know. Who knew St. Louis was once the country’s leading coffee producer? And that the organization that would become the National Coffee Association was founded in St. Louis?”
“It makes sense though,” said Mrs K R. “Many of the city’s early settlers had strong ties with France. French Canadians, for example, were some of the earliest St Louisans. And back then, France was coffee crazed. In the late 18th century, Paris had more than 3000 cafés that sold coffee! So you can see why the early settlers brought their caffeine habit with them. By the 1820s, steamboats were delivering regular shipments of coffee from New Orleans to St. Louis.”
“And by the mid-19th century, St. Louis was a major coffee hub, with coffee arriving by train as well.” I said. “They processed it here, then distributed it all over the Midwest.”
“Of course, some of the coffee they served back then sounded pretty vile,” said Mrs K R. “Remember how the exhibit said that in the early days, coffee was sometimes boiled for as long as 30 minutes? Not my cup of tea—or coffee! But clearly it got better. By 1845, there were 50 coffee shops in St. Louis. With a population of 35,000 in the city at the time, that means there was one coffee shop for every 700 people. Someone must have learned how to brew a mean cup of joe.”
“Yup, by the late 19th century, St. Louis coffee mavens had figured out new ways to roast and brew coffee,” I said. “Quality improved tremendously. Coffee merchants began selling properly roasted and ground coffee that made brewing a tasty cup easier. By the time of the World’s Fair in 1904, people thought of St. Louis coffee they way we think of coffee in the Pacific Northwest today. One of the biggest St. Louis brands was the C.F. Blanke Tea and Coffee Company, owned by Cyrus Blanke. Advertisements for his Faust Coffee appeared all over the US. For a time, it might have been almost as well known as Starbuck’s is today.”
“Speaking of the Pacific Northwest,” said Mrs K R, “part of the exhibit is curated by The Burke Museum in Seattle. You know, the part where they talk about coffee being one of the world’s most widely traded commodities. They have some cool information about the history and use of coffee throughout the world.”
“Yes, and the St Louis part is curated by the Missouri History Museum,” I added. “Great exhibit. It’s open through January 3, 2016. And it’s free!”
“Free is my favorite price,” said Mrs K R. “Wake up and smell the coffee. We need to visit it again!”
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