polenta three ways
Nineteen years ago I lived in a little art deco apartment, complete with original electric wiring and gas cooker. I managed to convince the real estate agent that if the dodgy wiring blew up my precious laptop my insurance company would sue them, heralding three weeks of a young electrician turning up every morning at 7.30 and disappearing again at 8 am, returning sometime after I’d gone to work, to make calls on my phone and do goodness knows what with my underwear drawer (I kid you not). I was not so lucky in my request to replace the stove. The kitchen featured a Stone Age burner built into the wall at shoulder height and a small square box of an oven perched beside it.
Strangely under such ergonomically unfriendly conditions I fell in love with polenta. Transforming the gritty cornmeal into smooth, creamy yellow goodness required up to 45 minutes of stirring, in a kitchen sized for a giant rather than a person of hobbit-like proportions.
After a year of whipping up polenta-based marvels, with a move to a modern and entirely more appropriately sized kitchen I promptly forgot about it. Eighteen years passed until I cooked it again. And now everything has changed. Instant polenta, with a mere 3 minutes of stirring, is my new best friend. Perhaps it’s a matter of time dimming my memory but there’s no discernable difference in taste or texture. This has been the Summer of Polenta. I hope it will be yours as well, as it’s dairy-free, vegan and fructose malabsorption-friendly.
To cook polenta
This recipe is for firm polenta that can be used as flan base or an alternative for bready nibbles. Soft polenta is cooked in a more water or stock to stop it becoming firm.
1 part instant polenta
3 parts salted water or vegetable stock
Bring salted water or stock to the boil in a large pot. Pour in the instant polenta in a steady stream and stir for three minutes over a low heat until thick. Be careful, if the heat is too high the lava-like mixture will splash and burn. Once cooked quickly transfer to an oiled baking tray or dish to set. If you’re tardy the mixture becomes too firm to wrangle.
Leave the polenta to set in the fridge or cool place for at least an hour. Overnight is fine if you want to prepare a meal in advance.
To use as a base for a flan 1 cup of polenta to 3 cups of salted water is perfect.
For squares, add a 500 gm packet of instant polenta to 1.5 litres of vegetable stock for more flavour.
For squares, it’s all about the polenta, so take your pick of fresh basil leaves (whole or shredded), sundries tomatoes, olives, marinated mushrooms or whatever tickles your fancy. Quickly stir in your extras when the polenta is cooked, before pouring into the pan to set.
I never know what to call this, so apologies to flan aficionados for misusing the term. This is simply a thick polenta base served with a substantial topping.
Set the polenta in an oiled flan/quiche dish, smooth out the surface with a knife or spatula and allow to set for at least an hour. I make a base that’s usually around 3cm high but it can be thicker or thinner depending on what you prefer.
Prepare your favourite vegetable topping. I make a variation on ratatouille, sans capsicum because of my aversion, with lashings of garlic and onion, eggplant, zucchini, tomatoes and olives.
To serve heat the polenta in a medium oven for about 15 minutes. Warm the ratatouille on the stove. Pour topping over the base to serve and cut into wedges.
For those wanting something less juicy and more pizza-ish, try topping the base with roasted vegetables, olives and cheese (regular, soft sheep’s milk or dairy-free alternative) and bake in a hot oven for 15 – 20 minutes.
Barbecued polenta squares
Cook polenta in salted water. Once cooked take off the heat and quickly stir through an extra with a robust flavour, like chopped sun dried tomatoes. Set in a large oiled baking dish.
Cut into squares, rectangles, diamonds or triangles and barbecue on a hot grill until crispy on both sides. Serve hot.
Basil polenta with tapenade
Cook a 500 gm packet of instant polenta in 1.5 litres of good quality vegetable stock. Once cooked, take off the heat and stir in a bunch of shredded fresh basil. Pour into a large oiled baking dish and leave to set for an hour or more.
To grill – this slightly unorthodox method works well. Crank oven up to the highest setting. Make sure your oven rack is as clean as possible. Cut the polenta while still in the baking dish into squares (or desired shape). Place the rack on top of the dish and carefully flip it over so the polenta squares fall neatly onto the rack. Place in hot oven for 10 - 15 minutes. My oven tends to make them crisper on the bottom, which I like.
When cool, top with tapenade or your favourite dip.
I combine about 12 Kalamata olives (buy whole olives but remove stones first), add a similar amount of raw walnuts, 1 – 2 cloves of garlic and a little olive oil in a mini-blender. If you have fresh thyme on hand add a small sprig or reserve a leaf or two of basil when preparing the base. Add a grind or two of black pepper if you like it but it doesn’t need any more salt. Blend 'til smooth but slightly chunky.
Polenta cooked any of these ways makes great leftovers for lunch the next day. It can be made a day in advance for a big gatherings and transports well to picnics.