April 7, 2010

Imagine, a polenta recipe as easy as a boxed cake

Old-school thinkers said polenta had to be time-consuming, but don't believe it and try this.

By RUSS PARSONS McClatchy Newspapers

(Continued from page 1)

POLENTA
click image to enlarge

polenta topped with braised chicken and sausage with green olives.

McClatchy Newspapers

POLENTA
click image to enlarge

How easy is polenta? Pour water into a wide, deep pot; stir in polenta; bake; stir; bake; stir and done.

McClatchy Newspapers

CORNMEAL OPTION

There is some confusion about the nature of polenta. It is coarsely ground cornmeal; depending on the region, it can be either white or yellow corn. Can you use regular cornmeal? Certainly. I made cornmeal and polenta versions of this recipe side by side, using exactly the same method. The results were slightly different, but only slightly.

Because cornmeal is more finely ground, it set up a little more quickly and became a little thicker than polenta -- more like custard than Cream of Wheat. And the polenta was a little more golden in color and richer in flavor.

I prefer polenta to cornmeal, and preferably Golden Pheasant, though it can be hard to find. (It pops up occasionally at local markets, but you can order it from www.granzellas.com, where it's $3.25 for a 1 ½-pound bag. Buy several to save on shipping and then store them in the freezer).

But I would certainly use cornmeal if I didn't have real polenta on hand. I even prefer it to the so-called instant polentas, which are par-cooked and dried and never seem to have much flavor.

And don't even get me started on those tubes of precooked polenta. They're fine for frying or grilling (searing covers a multitude of sins), but they're not in the ballpark when it comes to soft polenta flavor.

Well-made polenta is good by itself -- just stir in a lot of butter and Parmigiano. But it's even better when served with a sauce. The traditional accompaniment is some kind of long-braised ragu, made with beef, pork or, yes, a Piedmontese rabbit.

But there are a couple of good sauces that can be made in no more time than it takes the polenta to cook.

One of my favorites is made from mushrooms and not a whole lot more -- but you use them three ways. Saute quartered mushrooms until they begin to brown. Add some dried porcinis that you've softened in hot water. And then finally add the strained soaking water.

Sure there are a few other ingredients -- some garlic, onion, white wine, a bit of tomato paste to add depth and thicken the sauce and some chopped herbs at the end -- but the flavor is all wild mushrooms.

For that reason, you want to use the best dried mushrooms you can find, and as much of them as you can afford. This recipe is good with a half-ounce of mushrooms (the standard supermarket envelope), but it's even better with 1 or 1½ ounces.

If you want a meatier, more traditional ragu, you can still have that even if you don't want to spend a few hours braising pork. Use chicken thighs -- they'll cook quickly and still stay moist. For depth of flavor, add browned Italian sausage (either sweet or hot will work fine), and then slip in some unpitted green olives near the end. The whole thing should take less than 45 minutes to fix.

That's good, because this is Southern California and we've got better things to do than wait around for snow while we stand stirring polenta.

PERFECT BAKED POLENTA

Total time: 1 hour, 45 minutes

Servings: 6

8 cups water

1 teaspoon salt

2 cups polenta

2 to 3 tablespoons butter

¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano

1. Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a 3- to 4-quart oven-proof pot, combine the water, salt, polenta and butter. Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour and 20 minutes. Stir polenta and bake for 10 more minutes. Remove the pot from the oven and stir in the grated cheese. Set aside 5 minutes to rest before serving.

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