Polenta and Me

I feel like I have been trying to master polenta for years; like most traditional Italian foods/ways of cooking, polenta is at once incredibly simple (just cornmeal and water, at its base!), but at the same time it takes patience and experience to make a really great one. I am embarrassed to admit that I used to cook up a polenta in about 10 minutes, and I could never figure out what the big deal about it was since it was kind of bland in taste and texture. Yeah. Sorry polenta, it wasn’t you, it was me. I have since seen the error of my ways.

In the summer, when we are in hardcore BBQ-ing mode (and we BBQ probably at least 3 times a week in hot weather; so much nicer than being stuck in the kitchen!), grilled polenta makes a frequent appearance on our dinner plates. The soft, fresh-off-the-stove hot stuff is perfect stick-to-your-ribs eating in winter, while solid, lightly grilled wedges make the perfect starchy accompaniment in summer. It is not difficult (and also inexpensive!) to whip up a giant batch that will satisfy a group, and it is awesome with whatever extra BBQ-related sauce you have sitting around. I love the varying textures that you can find in a grilled polenta: a little bit charred, a little bit melty, and at its best nice and creamy.

Last weekend, we had a couple of Graeme’s colleagues and their families over for dinner, and we served some grilled polenta alongside freshly-made Italian sausage, an arugula and grilled squid salad, some grilled asparagus, and this unbelievable tasty and pretty rhubarb cheesecake from Nami-Nami. This is literally the best cheesecake I have ever made; I urge you to go make it immediately. In fact, I will be making it again this weekend.

One of our guests is not a big meat eater, so Graeme and I were conscious that the polenta should be the kind of thing that could stand on its own such that it could be someone’s main course, rather than being relegated to a side dish. As such, I packed it with cheese and roasted garlic to give it more flavour and richness, and Graeme whipped up (off the top of his head, because he’s awesome like that!) an accompanying grilled corn and roasted tomato salsa. Probably the least “fancy” part of the entire meal, this pairing was lovely and fresh and textured and we devoured the leftovers the next day. Simple, when done with thought and care, can be so damn good. There are a million ways to enjoy polenta on and off the BBQ, and we are happy to share what we did this time as but one drop in the tasty bucket.

Grilled Polenta with Grilled Corn and Roasted Tomato Salsa
Serves 8-10 people.

Ingredients:
For the Polenta:

2 cups cornmeal (I like it as coarsely ground as possible)
10 cups water
lots of salt, pepper and some dried red chili flakes
1 head of garlic
1 cup ricotta
1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan (or other similar hard cheese)

For the Salsa:
3 ears of corn, shucked
4 or 5 tomatoes
A generous amount of fresh oregano, basil, or whatever other herbs you have on hand
Olive oil

To make the Polenta:
Preheat your oven to 400F. Take your head of garlic, and chop off the top of it so that the tops of all of the cloves are exposed. Place it on a piece of tin foil and drizzle a bit of olive oil on top, and sprinkle a little salt and pepper. Wrap up the garlic in the tin foil, and roast it in the hot oven for approximately 45 minutes, til the cloves are good and soft. Take it out of the oven, unwrap and let it cool so that you won’t burn your fingers when it’s time to squeeze the garlic out!

Bring the water to a boil with some salt, then drizzle in the cornmeal while stirring vigorously to avoid clumps. Reduce the heat to low (seriously, as low as you can possibly go and still have the thing be cooking). Stir it. For a long time. At least 45 minutes. Don’t go more than a minute or two during this process without stirring. If it’s gotten super thick but still isn’t very creamy, add a bit more water. Stir it until it’s nice and thick and CREAMY. When it’s about done, add in your ricotta, Parmesan, and remove the garlic cloves from their skins and mix it all in. If you want, smash some of the garlic against the side of the saucepan to make it distribute more evenly, but don’t do that too much–it is an awesome surprise to discover whole cloves of sweet roasted garlic in your polenta! Then season to taste. I just used salt, pepper and some dried chili flakes, but you could add whatever you’d like. Be generous with the salt. Pour the polenta out into a lasagna-sized baking dish and refrigerate for at least one hour, until it is nice and solid.

Once you’re ready to grill, cut the polenta up into generous pieces; I like to cut it into squares and then cut those in two into triangles. This batch got me about a dozen such triangles. Either brush the polenta or your grill with a bit of oil to keep it from sticking. Grill until it’s nice and hot throughout, the skin is a bit charred and crispy, and it smells awesome. Serve with sauce.

To make the Salsa:
Preheat the oven to 350.  Lightly brush the tomatoes with olive oil, put them on a baking tray, and put them in the oven until they are soft.  Remove from the oven and let cool.  Once they’re cool enough to touch, peel the skins off the tomatoes, roughly chop them, and put them in a bowl.  In the meantime, fire up the grill and roast your corn.  Once it’s cooked, slice the kernels off the cob and add those to the tomatoes. Chop up generous amounts of fresh herbs and toss those with the tomatos and corn.  Check and adjust the seasoning, and serve spooned over grilled warm polenta wedges.

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7 thoughts on “Polenta and Me

  1. YUM-E. I’ve got a serious love affair going on with polenta as well, especially the grilled variety.

    I made a really incredible dish over the winter that I thought I’d share, as I think it’d be up you and Graeme’s alley: Crispy polenta (wedges toasted in my panini press) with chipotle braised short-ribs. I made the polenta with some really fantastic cheddar cheese and scallions and the whole thing just came together beautifully. So very decadent, but PERFECT on a cold Sunday night in the dead of winter.

  2. This is genius! We’re not vegetarians but we have a number of friends who are, and I’m always on the lookout for satisfying meals I can make when they come over. Thanks for the recipe!

  3. Whoa Rebecca, thanks for the link, it is full of wisdom! And thanks all for your nice comments–I am happy to spread the polenta gospel.

  4. Pingback: Kitchen Sink Shrimp and Grits with Corn, Bacon and Rhubarb | Braising Hell

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