Polenta Four Ways

Have you been looking for something new to serve as a side dish instead of rice or potatoes? Why not give polenta a try? Polenta is simply a dish made of cornmeal boiled in water, milk or broth. It pairs well with many dishes, is simple to make and can easily accept a wide variety of add ins if you desire. It can even stand up well as a main dish for breakfast or lunch.

Polenta is certainly not a new thing, it has been around for a very long time actually. From what I have read, it originated in the Northern and Central regions of Italy and before corn was introduced to Italy by America sometime during the 16th century, it was made from other ingredients such as farro, millet and spelt.

When it comes to texture, there are two ways to prepare polenta – firm and soft. Or as I have come to call them Grandma Angie style (if you have been following our blog, you may already know that my Grandma Angie is the source of the recipes we use in our From Angie’s Kitchen posts) and Aunt Rose style. Grandma and Aunt Rose were sisters and they each enjoyed both varieties, but for reasons I can’t explain as I never asked them why when they were still with us, when polenta was being prepared grandma always made the firm variety and Aunt Rose made the soft.

Let’s start with the Aunt Rose (soft) style which is the first of the four ways I mentioned in the title. When I was growing up, she would often ask us if we’d like “cornmeal” for breakfast or lunch. We were very familiar with the dish and while we always thought of it as cornmeal when we were kids, what she was actually making was the soft variety of polenta. The main difference in preparing the two textures is simply the amount of liquid that goes into it. A good rule of thumb is to use 5 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal for the soft variety and 4 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal for the firm. The other difference is the length of time it takes to cook. Both are brought to a boil and then simmered – the firm variety is simmered for quite a bit longer to allow it to thicken more and reduce the moisture content.

For the soft variety, choose how much cornmeal you wish to make and add it to a pot filled with 5 times the liquid. For example, if you wish to make 1 cup of cornmeal, pour it into a pot filled with 5 cups of liquid – for this particular variety, I used water. You may also use a pinch or two of salt if desired. I’ve seen several recipes that say to add the cornmeal to boiling water, but we have always added it to cold water. Mix the cornmeal well into the water and stir frequently as you bring it to a boil to prevent it from getting lumpy. Once it has come to a boil, reduce the heat to a slow simmer and continue to simmer and stir for 5 minutes before removing it from the heat.

At this point you could use it as a side dish by mixing in a variety of things, from a simple bit of salt to parmesan cheese and herbs. For me, the thing I remember best about Aunt Rose’s soft variety is that she prepared it like a hot breakfast cereal. After it came off of the heat, she would melt a bit of butter into it to keep if from getting too solid or clumpy and then she would dish it out onto plates and we would sprinkle some sugar on it. Then as she always told us to do, we would take our spoons and make “tracks” in it and pour some milk into the tracks we made.

Soft style polenta with sugar and milk

It’s funny how something as simple as a plate of food can conjure up such strong memories. I haven’t had soft style polenta for breakfast in years and all it took was one bite to bring me right back to Aunt Rose’s table with memories of sharing that table with my sister, brother and our many cousins.

Moving on to the Grandma Angie (firm) style of polenta. This version takes a bit more time to prepare, but is well worth it. What I love about the firm style is that it can be easily be set in different shaped molds to give it a very elevated and fun look when being served. My grandmother used to set hers in a bread loaf pan and after unmolding it, she would slice it and use it in many different ways. Some examples include pan frying it to make it crispy and sprinkling it with a bit of salt, warming it in the microwave and pouring gravy or sauce over it or using slices as a “crust” to make a pizza like dish which she baked in the oven.

When cooking the firm variety, again choose how much cornmeal you want to cook and go with 4 times the liquid. For this batch of firm polenta I used 1 1/4 cups of cornmeal and 5 cups of water. Mix the cornmeal well into the cold liquid and stir frequently as you bring it to a boil to prevent it from getting lumpy. Once it has come to a boil, reduce the heat to a slow simmer and continue to simmer and stir for 15 to 20 minutes. Be especially careful as you cook the firm version – if not stirred frequently it will bubble and sputter and splash all over the place. Trust me, you don’t want a splash of molten hot cornmeal to land on your hands!

The firm polenta is the base for the 3 remaining ways I prepared it for this post. The beauty of making several types of firm polenta is that it really is so simple to do because each variety begins with the same base ingredient. If you want to make 3 or 4 varieties at once, just start by making one big batch of the firm polenta. Easy for you, but it looks like you did a lot of work to your family or guests, especially if you then set it in some sort of cool mold – I used a pan designed for making little Bundt cakes.

When the polenta was done cooking, I divided the hot mixture equally into three bowls that had been prepared in advance with the additional ingredients I chose. Bowl #1 was set up with nothing more than some sea salt (1 teaspoon) for one of the most simple and classic styles of firm polenta. In bowl #2 I added 1/4 cup parmesan cheese and 30 to 40 fresh thyme leaves and in bowl #3, 2 strips of well cooked crumbled bacon and 2 ounces of diced white cheddar. Stir each bowl well to thoroughly combine the ingredients and be prepared to work fairly quickly – you don’t want it to get too cool before transferring it to your molds because it becomes more difficult to do as it begins to set fairly quickly.

Be sure to lightly grease your molds with butter before adding the polenta in order to make unmolding them easy. Place the molds (or pan if you didn’t use a mold) into the refrigerator for a minimum of 30 minutes and then remove the polenta from the pan just as you would with a cake.

Firm polenta served three different ways

We enjoyed sampling each of the three types of firm polenta I made warmed up and served as a side to a ham dinner we had that evening. As we ate them I started to think again about the pan fried version I mentioned earlier. It was always one of my favorite ways to eat it – the nice crisp toasted edges were extra flavorful while the inside remained soft.

The shape of the molds I used weren’t exactly conducive to pan frying like the regular flat slices you’d get from polenta molded in a loaf pan, so I decided to give the air fryer a shot. We had 6 left after our dinner, so I placed 3 of them in the air fryer basket, brushed them lightly with melted butter and set the machine to 400 degrees for 20 minutes and let it go to work. The end result was ok, but the outside edges weren’t as crisp or brown as I would have liked. I put the remaining 3 in the refrigerator to contemplate a new direction.

Later that evening when I wasn’t even thinking about it, a memory popped into my head – my grandma used to dust the slices with flour before pan frying them. The flour helped dry up the moisture on the outside which in turn made them brown up properly. Of course this concept wouldn’t really work well in the air fryer. Since the flour wouldn’t be touching the oil in a pan, you would just end up with clumps of dried flour on the outside – not particularly appetizing! I thought about it a bit longer and then I remembered Julia Child always talking about how you should always pat meat dry before trying to brown it because it won’t brown properly otherwise. I didn’t want to pat the polenta dry – it didn’t seem like this would be achieved as easily as it would with meat. Instead, I decided to rely on the air fryer itself to do the job since it would be like placing them under a hot fan!

For my second attempt I placed them in the air fryer basket at the same time and temperature – 400 degrees for 20 minutes – and let them heat for the first 5 minutes without any oil or butter on the surface. This allowed the outer surface to dry nicely before I sprayed them with a bit of olive oil and finished cooking them. The end result was much closer to the pan frying method with delicious crispy brown edges.

One final note about the main ingredient – you might come across bags of cornmeal labeled polenta when shopping. The only real difference between polenta and cornmeal is how it is ground. Polenta cornmeal is coarse and regular cornmeal is more fine. While the more coarsely ground version may give you a more “authentic” polenta, both kinds work well and will produce a delicious end result.

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