Traveling the world through cuisine

It's All About Polenta

Polenta in Italy

I was flipping through my copy of Culinaria Italy, and early in the book the authors told of Friuli, a region up in Northern Italy. I read an interesting story of polenta and how it came to be in Friuli back in the 17th century. It was a tale of an oppressive Venetian government and necessity being the mother of invention with the corn they had growing in the region.

Back before coming upon this story, I first had the impression that polenta was a South American dish, per my visit to a few Brazilian and other South American restaurants here in Chicago. I normally never saw polenta on the menus for Italian restaurants; hence my surprise to see how much it was in Northern Italian cuisine, as well as other parts of Europe.

For those who never had it, polenta is best described as if you took cornmeal, cooked it in water until it became so thick you could shape it, and then cooled it into a dense kind of cake. From there you can cut it into pieces, shapes, etc; and flavor it more with seasonings, sauces, or other ingredients. It makes me think of tofu, only made out of corn. Polenta can act as a pasta substitute as well as a base for other ideas. You can take it in savory or sweet directions, as we’ll get to in a bit.

This entry will have three recipes. We’re going to start off with just basically how to make polenta:

Basic Polenta

Basic Polenta

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of polenta flour
  • 3 cups of water
  • 1 tsp of salt

Instructions

  1. In a medium saucepan, combine the salt with the water, and bring the mixture up to a boil.
  2. Slowly add in 1/3 of the polenta flour and stir. The first addition will cause the water to bubble and froth. This will clear up within seconds.
  3. Keep adding in the rest of the flour and stir.
  4. Lower your heat, and simmer the polenta for 30-45 minutes. You will need to stir almost constantly, or at least a few times every few minutes.
  5. When the polenta is finished, it should be a very thick and sticky paste. Spoon the mixture out of the pot and onto a wood cutting board. Here is where you should flatten or shape the polenta into the final mass you want based on thickness.
  6. Allow the polenta to cool for 10-15 minutes.
  7. Slice and cut the polenta into any shape you desire, and season/serve as you see fit.

Quick Notes

For the sake of this recipe, I used the term “polenta flour” to describe the cornmeal or corn grits. You can use plain old normal cornmeal, but course ground corn grits will give you a better texture. Most grocers should carry corn grits meant for polenta. I would also advise not using instant polenta if you happen to see it.

Use a long spoon and be careful for puffs of stream (and possibly polenta) that come popping out as you simmer.

Don’t let the polenta sit too long without stirring. The goal is to keep the heat consistent and to simmer the mixture until practically all of the water has soaked into the flour or evaporated away.

I’ve made several batches and tried different ways of serving it.  Most will slice it into pieces and pour tomato sauce on it.  Some season it while it’s cooking to flavor the polenta itself.  I remember one Brazilian steakhouse flavored it almost sweet to go with their spicy meals.  A common favorite in the US is to fry the pieces and then serve it like French Fries (this one was a winner with Zuzana and anyone on a Candida diet).  I even broke it into pieces and served it as a substitute for rice with the Cioppino I talked about a few weeks ago.

It was a week ago I was invited to a dinner party where each guest brings a dish.  With polenta on the brain I decided to quest to make both a sweet dish and a savory dish for the event.  The first course consisted of some seasoned polenta with shrimp:

Savory Polenta with Italian Shrimp

Savory Polenta with Italian Shrimp

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of polenta flour
  • 3 cups of water
  • 1 tbsp of salt
  • 2 tsp of granulated garlic
  • 2 tsp of Italian seasoning blend
  • 2 tbsp of olive oil
  • 1 tsp of paprika
  • 1 lb of medium-size cooked shrimp with tails cut off
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Instructions

  • Prepare the polenta as described in the Basic Polenta recipe. About halfway into the simmer time, stir in the granulated garlic and 1 tsp of the Italian seasoning blend.
  • When polenta is finished simmering, lay it out on the wood board and shape it into 1/2″ thickness. Allow polenta to fully cool.
  • In a frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Place the shrimp in the oil. You might want to add a pinch of salt right after you throw them into the pan.
  • Sprinkle 1 tsp of Italian seasoning blend and 1 tsp of paprika on the shrimp, stir, and continue heat until shrimp is hot.
  • Cut the polenta into circles. You can use a cookie cutter or mold, or even a glass to make circles.
  • Place a few shrimps on top of each, and scoop a little bit of the sauce that formed to let it soak into the polenta.
  • When ready to serve, simply microwave for a few minutes or bake at 350° for 10-15 minutes.

Quick Notes

The Italian Seasoning Blend is a nice combo I found at the store where I buy my herbs. It’s simply a combination of oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, and marjoram. Feel free to use a similar blend, or make it yourself, or season differently if you like.

In the image, I tried to use a muffin pan, but I think letting the polenta cool and cutting it into circles will make for better looking pieces. Be sure to press the shrimp into the polenta a little when placing. You want them to stay after all.

At this point, all the dishes I’ve made with polenta were savory, but it is such a basic food item that you can sweeten it and try it as a dessert.  Zuzana picked up some fresh blueberries and I made a nice dessert with it:

Sweet Polenta with Blueberry Compote

Sweet Polenta with Blueberry Compote

Ingredients

  • 1 cup of polenta flour
  • 3 cups and 3 tbsp of water
  • 1 tbsp of salt
  • 1 lb blueberries
  • 1/4 cup and 3 tbsp of sugar
  • 1 tsp of vanilla extract

Instructions

  1. Prepare the polenta as described in the above recipe. About halfway into the simmer time, stir in 3 tbsp of sugar and 1 tsp of vanilla extract.
  2. When polenta is finished simmering, lay it out on the wood board and shape it into 1/2″ thickness. Allow polenta to fully cool.
  3. In a medium saucepan, place the blueberries with 3 tbsp of water and 1/4 cup of sugar.
  4. Simmer the blueberries, sugar, and water on low heat until the sugar and water dissolve into a nice syrup.
  5. Cut the polenta into circles. You can use a cookie cutter or mold, or even a glass to make circles.
  6. Place a spoonful of the blueberry compote on top of each.
  7. When ready to serve, simply microwave for a few minutes or bake at 350° for 10-15 minutes.

Quick Notes

In the image, I tried to use a muffin pan, but I think letting the polenta cool and cutting it into circles will make for better looking pieces. Be sure to press the blueberries into the polenta a little when placing. You want them to stay after all.

Healthy It Up

Since Zuzana’s Candida diet doesn’t allow for sugar, a substitute would be to use 6 ounces of agave nectar, but you might have to add corn starch to thicken the mixture into a syrup. Be sure to take liquid from the mixture when making your corn starch blend, rather than add more water.

Needless to say, the sky is the limit when it comes to polenta.  Try your own experimentations with whatever flavors that tempt your palette.

Tags: Dessert, Italian, polenta, Seafood

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