I love polenta this time of year, when I’m craving food that’s warm and comforting. It’s a nice alternative to potatoes next to a pork chop or roast chicken. And it makes a delicious base for braised short ribs, a wonderful sponge for soaking up their rich gravy.
If you’ve had mediocre polenta you may have given up on it. Maybe you think it's always dry, bland…boring.
But it doesn’t have to be. Made properly, polenta can be creamy and flavorful.
I have three tricks for taking polenta from dull to delicious.
|Cornmeal, before it has become polenta|
The first is to impart lots of flavor. Polenta is made from ground cornmeal, which doesn’t have a lot of flavor. It’s then boiled until cooked. At its most basic, polenta can be a simple combination of cornmeal and water.
But why put your tastebuds to sleep when you can wake them with great flavor? I do this by heating up a little olive oil in a saucepan. To the oil I add minced garlic, fresh thyme (any herb would work), and crushed red pepper flakes. The oil gets infused with these lovely flavors and they eventually work their way throughout the polenta.
My second trick is to up the liquid-to-cornmeal ratio. A lot of recipes call for 2 ½ to 3 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal. I use 4 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal. And in place of water, I use chicken broth and milk. Again, imparting flavor. (Of course you could use vegetable broth in place of the chicken broth to keep this vegetarian.)
The final trick is to stir in a bit of mascarpone cheese at the very end. Mascarpone is a very mild, Italian cheese that melts beautifully. It makes the polenta a little creamier and gives it a bit of extra savoriness. Parmesan would be another great option.
I usually serve polenta as a side dish. But you can easily serve it as a main dish too. Just top it with meat sauce or sautéed mushrooms and call it dinner.
Heat olive oil in a saucepan. Add the garlic, thyme and red pepper. (Careful, the oil will spatter.) Heat for about a minute until the garlic is golden brown and you can smell the ingredients.
Reduce the heat and slowly add the cornmeal, stirring constantly with a whisk. If you stop stirring, your polenta will be lumpy.
Turn off the heat, and then add the mascarpone cheese. Whisk to incorporate the cheese into the polenta.
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
¼ tsp crushed red pepper flakes (or more, to taste)
2 cups milk
2 cups chicken broth (or substitute vegetable broth)
1 tsp salt
1 cup cornmeal
½ cup mascarpone cheese
1. Heat olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat. Add the garlic, thyme and red pepper flakes. Heat for about a minute until the garlic is golden brown and the oil is fragrant.
2. Add the milk, broth, salt and pepper. Raise heat and bring up to a boil.
3. As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, reduce heat to low. Add the cornmeal in a slow, steady stream, while whisking. Heat for about five minutes, until the mixtures thickens, continuing to whisk constantly.
4. Turn off the heat. Add the mascarpone cheese and whisk in to incorporate. Taste and adjust seasonings.