Polenta, Your New Winter Comfort Food

The cornmeal dish called polenta is a great cold-weather comfort food.

The classic Italian can be served at breakfast, lunch or dinner, depending on what liquid you cook it with (broth, water, milk) and what you top it with.

On The Early Show, cookbook author and cooking teacher Tori Ritchie explained the simple, though time-consuming polenta preparation process and also gave some serving tips.

You can buy polenta in many forms. Ritchie prefers imported or domestic coarse-ground yellow cornmeal, the true polenta, which takes 25 to 40 minutes to cook. You can also purchase instant polenta, which has been treated so it cooks much more quickly. Finally, you can buy pre-cooked cylinders of polenta, which can be sliced and then grilled or fried.

Ritchie started by showing how to make basic polenta. The pot you use for this dish is important. It needs to be heavy, so the polenta doesn't scorch, and deep, so it doesn't splash out when you're stirring. Ritchie believes an enameled iron or anodized aluminum is your best bet.

You start by boiling water, chicken broth or a combination of milk and water on the stovetop.

When you add the polenta to the pot, you want to whisk to incorporate it. That helps prevent lumps. You then switch out to a wooden spoon (as opposed to a metal spoon, which might get too hot) and stir in one direction to keep the mixture smooth as it cooks.

Italians cook polenta for 40 minutes, but Ritchie finds that it's ready to go after 25.

You need to stir frequently as it cooks, but not constantly.

Ritchie showed two different serving suggestions for hot, soft polenta. You can top it with a puttanesca sauce or other savory choice, such as simple butter or cheese. You can also make a sweeter, more breakfast-y dish by topping it with bananas and maple syrup.

The recipe Ritchie uses actually calls this sweet dish "polentina" -- a creamier, more liquid form of polenta that's often served in Italy as a comforting breakfast porridge or as baby food. Milk is used in place of water or broth so that the cornmeal will become creamy.

Once you cook polenta, you can pour it into a pan and chill it. The polenta becomes quite firm almost immediately. Ritchie suggests using a metal spatula dipped in water to help spread the mixture in the pan. It will firm up at room temperature; you can also keep it in the fridge for up to two days.

Once the polenta is firm, you can slice it into smaller pieces and broil it to form crostini, or you can use in a casserole (such as lasagna, with polenta instead of noodles).

RECIPES

Polenta Puttanesca

This dish combines creamy polenta with a classic puttanesca sauce traditionally served over pasta. Serves 4.

For the puttanesca sauce:

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1 small white onion, minced
4 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 lb. plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 cup pitted and sliced Kalamata, niçoise or gaeta olives
1/4 cup drained capers
1/4 cup coarsely chopped cured anchovy fillets
1/4 tsp. crushed red pepper flakes
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
2 Tbs. finely chopped fresh flat-leaf parsley

For the polenta:

4 cups water
1 tsp. salt
1 cup polenta

To make the sauce, in a saucepan over medium heat, warm the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté, stirring occasionally, until tender and translucent, 3 to 5 minutes.

Add the tomatoes, olives, capers, anchovies and red pepper flakes, bring to a simmer and reduce the heat to medium-low. Simmer until the tomatoes are tender and begin to break down, 25 to 30 minutes. Season with salt and pepper and stir in the parsley. Keep the sauce warm.

To make the polenta, in a saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a boil. Add the salt. Stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, add the polenta in a thin, steady stream until incorporated. Continue stirring to prevent lumps from forming. Reduce the heat so the mixture bubbles occasionally. Cook, stirring and scraping the bottom and sides of the pan, until the polenta is thick and starts to pull away from the sides of the pan, 35 to 40 minutes.

Divide the polenta among warmed pasta bowls. Pour about 1/2 cup of the sauce over each serving and pass the rest at the table. Serve immediately.

Williams-Sonoma Kitchen.

Polentina with Bananas and Maple Syrup
(Serves 4)

1 2/3 cups water, plus more as needed
1 2/3 cups milk, plus more as needed
1 1/2 Tbs. sugar
1/4 tsp. fine sea salt
3/4 cup polenta or coarsely ground yellow cornmeal
2 ripe bananas, peeled and sliced 1/4 inch thick
1/2 cup pure maple syrup, warmed
Melted unsalted butter for drizzling (optional)

In a large, heavy saucepan over medium-high heat, combine the 1 2⁄3 cups water, 1 2/3 cups milk, the sugar and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and, when the liquid is barely simmering, drizzle in the polenta in a slow, thin stream, whisking constantly in the same direction until all the grains have been absorbed and the mixture is smooth and free of lumps. Reduce the heat to very low. Switch to a wooden spoon and stir thoroughly every 1 to 2 minutes until the polentina is loose and creamy, about 15 minutes. (For thicker polentina, cook for up to 30 minutes.) Add a little more water or milk if the polentina gets too stiff; this should be a very liquid mixture.

Ladle the polentina into individual bowls. Distribute the bananas over the top. Drizzle with the warm maple syrup and the melted butter.

Adapted from "Williams-Sonoma Collection Series, Breakfast," by Brigit L. Binns (Simon & Schuster, 2003)

Polenta Crostini with Sausage Topping
(Makes 32 "bites")

These hearty appetizers use bite-size pieces of crispy polenta, instead of toasted baguette slices, to hold a savory sausage topping. After the polenta is cooked on the stovetop, it's poured into a baking pan and allowed to stand until firm. Then the polenta is cut into pieces, brushed with melted butter and broiled until crispy.

2 cups chicken stock
1 cup milk
3/4 tsp. salt
1 cup polenta
2 Tbs. unsalted butter
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 fresh pork, chicken or turkey sausages, about 1/2 lb. total casings removed
2 Tbs. olive oil
1/2 small yellow onion, finely chopped
2 large garlic cloves, finely chopped
1 can (14 oz.) diced plum tomatoes with juice
1 small bay leaf
1/2 tsp. salt
1/4 tsp. freshly ground pepper, plus more, to taste
1 Tbs. finely chopped fresh basil
3 Tbs. unsalted butter, melted

To make the polenta, in a heavy saucepan over high heat, combine the stock, milk and salt and bring to a boil. Reduce the heat to a simmer. Add the polenta in a slow, thin stream, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to very low. Stir vigorously with a wooden spoon every 1 to 2 minutes until the grains of polenta have softened, 12 to 15 minutes. Stir in the butter and cheese and remove from the heat.

Lightly oil an 8-by-12-inch baking pan. Mound the hot polenta in the pan and, using a spatula repeatedly dipped in very hot water, spread the polenta into a layer a little less than 1/2 inch thick. Cover with a kitchen towel and let rest at room temperature for at least 1 hour.

Heat a large nonstick or cast-iron fry pan over medium heat. Add the sausages and cook, stirring and breaking up the meat, until no trace of pink remains, 5 to 7 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the sausage to a double thickness of paper towels to drain. Discard any fat from the pan and wipe out with a paper towel.

Return the pan to medium heat and warm the olive oil. Add the onion and garlic and sauté until softened, about 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, bay leaf, salt and the 1D4 tsp. pepper and bring to a simmer. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the liquid has evaporated and the mixture is quite thick, about 10 minutes. Discard the bay leaf, stir in the sausage and the basil, and keep warm while you brown the polenta.

Preheat a broiler. Cut the polenta into 32 pieces. In batches if necessary, transfer the pieces to a broiler pan and brush the tops with half of the melted butter. Season with pepper.

Place under the broiler about 3 inches from the heat source and broil until golden and crisp, about 5 minutes. Turn and brush the other sides with the remaining butter and broil until golden, about 4 minutes more.

Transfer the polenta pieces to a platter and top each with a small dollop of the warm sausage topping. Serve immediately.

Adapted from "Williams-Sonoma Collection Series, Hors d'Oeuvre," by Brigit L. Binns (Simon & Schuster, 2001)

Polenta Casserole with Meat Sauce (Polenta Pasticciata con Ragù di Carne)
(Serves 4)

Other cheeses, such as fontina or young pecorino, can replace the mozzarella, and a plain tomato sauce or mushroom sauce can stand in for the ragù. Although polenta is usually associated with northern Italy, this is a southern Italian dish. It's perfect to double or triple for a crowd, and can be assembled a day or two ahead of time and baked just before serving.

For the polenta:

8 cups water
2 cups polenta
1 Tbs. salt

For the sauce:

2 Tbs. unsalted butter
2 Tbs. olive oil
1 yellow onion, chopped
1 carrot, peeled and chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 garlic clove, chopped
1/2 lb. ground beef or veal
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 can (28 oz.) plum tomatoes with juice
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/2 lb. fresh mozzarella cheese, sliced
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

To make the polenta, in a saucepan over high heat, bring the water to a boil. Dribble the cornmeal into the water in a very thin, steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps. Add the salt. When the polenta begins to boil, reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring frequently, until the polenta is thick and pulls away from the sides of the pot, 30 to 40 minutes.

Meanwhile, oil two 8-inch square baking pans. Pour the polenta into the prepared pans, dividing it evenly and spreading it flat with a rubber spatula moistened with cold water. Let cool until firm. (The polenta can be made up to 24 hours ahead. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate.)

To make the sauce, in a large saucepan over medium heat, melt the butter with the olive oil. Add the onion, carrot and celery and cook, stirring, until tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. Stir in the garlic. Add the meat and cook, stirring to break up any lumps, until browned, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and cook until the liquid evaporates, about 2 minutes more. Pass the tomatoes and their juice through a food mill or sieve directly into the saucepan. Season with salt and pepper and simmer, uncovered, until thickened, 30 to 45 minutes.

Preheat an oven to 400°F. Oil a large square or rectangular baking dish.

Cut the polenta into eight 4-inch squares and arrange half of the squares in the bottom of the baking dish. Spoon on half of the sauce, covering evenly, and top with half of the mozzarella cheese slices. Repeat the layers using the remaining ingredients. Sprinkle the Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese evenly over the top.

Bake until the cheese melts and the sauce is bubbling, about 40 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes, then serve hot directly from the baking dish.

Adapted from "Williams-Sonoma Savoring Series, Savoring Italy," by Michele Scicolone (Time-Life Books, 1999)