Polenta is the Italian name for ground maize (or Indian corn), sometimes known as maizemeal. It is usually a bright yellowy gold in colour, but may also be pale yellow to the point of being almost white. Together with other grains it must be one of the oldest, simplest, and most universal types of cooked food.
Until recently polenta was largely ignored outside of certain parts of Italy. There were two main reasons for this. First, because it was generally associated with the very poor, people who couldn't afford anything better, and secondly because cooking it was a long and laborious process. Generally made at home, with several members of the family sharing the preparation, it was eaten communally. A pan of polenta would be spread on a wooden board in the middle of a table, or on the scrubbed wooden table itself. Whatever kind of sauce that could be afforded was then poured on the polenta and those sitting round the table would help themselves.
As a dish, polenta has changed very little since those days, but the cooking time has been transformed by modern production methods. This has conferred fashionable status upon polenta and rendered it a vegetarian favourite. Nowadays, and compared with even the recent past, most polenta whether prepared at home or in restaurants is instant, or at least relatively so.
It comes in three main forms, coarse, medium and fine, though I find that most shops stock only the medium and fine. Medium is preferable for main dishes. Fine polenta is best reserved for baking. It makes excellent cakes and muffins. Whether medium or fine, both serve as very useful general purpose kitchen flours, being especially good for coating purposes and for thickening sauces. There are various commercial brands and types of polenta available, but I would recommend buying it handily packaged from real or wholefood shops.
So, how to cook it?
The long hard labour may have been eliminated from cooking polenta and you need now set aside only a short period of time for the job, but be warned! It is a hot and hurried task, definitely one of those kitchen moments best faced alone.
Have ready to hand everything you will need, ingredients and utensils, including a flat shallow container. I use what is sometimes called a Swiss Roll tin, approximately (and it doesn't matter if the measurements vary slightly) 20cms (8 inches) x 30cms (12 inches) x 4cms (1½ inches), lightly greased with butter or olive oil.
You will also need a large non-stick saucepan, a whisk (preferably one made of silicon to prevent damaging the surface of the saucepan), and a long wooden stirring spoon. You can manage with just the spoon, but it's easier with both.
225g (8oz) medium polenta
1 litre (or 2 pints) water
25g (1 oz) butter
25g(1oz) grated vegetarian parmesan cheese
Salt and pepper
Pour the water into the saucepan and bring to a rolling boil. Don't add any polenta until the water truly is boiling. Then, with one hand pour the polenta very slowly into the boiling water, at the same time whisking vigorously with the other hand to avoid any lumps forming. At first the polenta will bubble and spit. It's usually safe but take care to see that it doesn't splash on exposed hands or lower arms. After just two or three minutes the polenta will start to thicken. Lower the heat, change to the wooden spoon, and continue stirring.
After a further couple of minutes the mixture will start to come away from the sides of the saucepan and form into a ball. Turn the heat low and add the butter, parmesan cheese, salt and pepper. Raise the heat a little and continue to stir. The mixture will now be more malleable. When you feel that the ingredients are fully combined, tip the ball of polenta into the greased tin or dish and smooth out with a flat kitchen knife. Leave to cool. The whole process should have taken about 5 or 6 minutes.
If you are using the polenta reasonably soon, then it can just stand there until needed. If you are preparing it in advance, then cover the cooled polenta with kitchen foil and place it in the fridge. Polenta cooks perfectly well from cold. In normal circumstances, you will have enough polenta here for two main meals, so some of it will be going into the fridge anyway. Stored in a plastic container it will keep well for three or four days.
Now it is cooked, here are a few of the many ways it can be used. They range from quick tasty snacks and impromptu suppers to centrepieces for a main meal. See: