Polenta: cornmeal mush with a little more fuss

January 05, 1994|By Jane Snow | Jane Snow,Knight-Ridder News Service

Just try telling the radicchio crowd that polenta is nothing more than expensive cornmeal mush. They'd probably pelt you with pink peppercorns.

But it's essentially true. The homemade cornmeal mush I made last week tasted almost identical to homemade polenta. The main difference was the amount of elbow grease that went into the making -- 40 minutes of stirring for the polenta, and only 15 for the mush.

For you Spam types who have spent the last five years in the heat 'n' eat aisle, polenta is creamy, cooked cornmeal that usually is chilled, cut into shapes and grilled. Sometimes it is topped with mushrooms and sauces and served as an appetizer. Sometimes it is sprinkled with cheese and served as a side dish with meats.

Polenta is all the rage. You can't get through a meal in a fancy restaurant without encountering a crusty square or two.

When I was a kid, my family dined on polenta. But we drowned it in syrup, ate it for breakfast and called it mush.

OK, OK. To be fair, there is a difference between commercial mush and homemade polenta. Commercial mush, sold in bricks in supermarkets -- and wonderful for breakfast -- has a heavy texture and an assertive corn flavor.

Homemade polenta has a creamier, more delicate texture and a noticeably sweeter flavor because of the longer cooking time. Italians say true polenta has a more interesting texture, too. It traditionally is made with coarse-ground cornmeal, not fine-ground meal such as Quaker's.

There may be a big difference between polenta and commercial mush, but when compared with homemade mush, the difference is slight. Polenta may be a little sweeter because of the longer cooking, and creamier because of the extra stirring. But if you haven't made polenta because of the muscle power required, we bet no one will notice if you sub homemade cornmeal mush.

In Italy, polenta originally was the food of the poor. It contains only cornmeal, water and salt.

Over the past three centuries, polenta graduated to restaurant tables in Italy, where it is served in its soft state as an appetizer beaten with butter and cheese, or an entree topped with game or stews.

Soft polenta resembles thick cream of wheat cereal and solidifies quickly after cooking. In Italy, leftover polenta is spread on a platter and chilled. It then is cut into diamonds and grilled or fried as it is here, or cut into oblongs and layered to form a kind of lasagna.

Unadorned polenta is bland, but it soaks up flavors beautifully. In this country, chefs have gone wild with the possibilities. It is spooned into bowls and topped with fish stew, grilled and served with corned beef hash, and buried under refried beans and salsa.

To make mush, cornmeal is stirred into salted, boiling water and simmered, with frequent stirring, for about 15 minutes. It is served hot as a breakfast cereal, sweetened with sugar and splashed with milk, or poured into loaf pans and chilled. Slices are fried in butter and served with syrup or a sprinkling of sugar.

Polenta is made the same way, except the cornmeal is very slowly added into the simmering water, and the mixture is stirred with a wooden spoon for 20 minutes to an hour, depending on which expert you consult. The polenta is done when it pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Altogether, I stirred my polenta for 40 minutes -- 10 minutes while slowly adding the cornmeal, and 30 minutes to thicken. The idea is to scrape the bottom and the sides of the pan so a crust doesn't form. Use a heavy saucepan to avoid scorching.

Some chefs use chicken broth or milk to give the polenta a different flavor and add herbs while it is cooking. Others beat in butter, Parmesan cheese and herbs after it is cooked, but before chilling.

To chill polenta or mush for cutting into shapes later, pour the mixture into a jellyroll pan or an oblong bake pan about 1/2 -inch deep. Cold polenta may be brushed with olive oil and grilled or broiled, or fried until golden in a skillet. From then on, anything goes.

For a simple accompaniment to meats, cut in triangles, brush with olive oil, sprinkle with Parmesan and broil on both sides 5 to 7 minutes.

Soft polenta topped with sausages is a traditional Italian way to ,, serve polenta. Our recipe is from "The Classic Italian Cookbook" by Marcella Hazan. The recipe for grilled polenta with jack cheese is from "A Taste of San Francisco," a fund-raiser book for the San Francisco Symphony. Mush can be substituted for the polenta, if desired.

The recipes were tested with Quaker yellow cornmeal. You can find coarse cornmeal at Italian food stores and some supermarkets.

Cornmeal mush

3 3/4 cups water

1 cup yellow cornmeal

1/2 teaspoon salt

Bring 2 3/4 cups of the water to a boil in a heavy saucepan. In a bowl, combine cornmeal, salt and 1 cup cold water. Stir until smooth.

Slowly add the cornmeal mixture to the boiling water, stirring constantly. Reduce heat to medium-low and stir frequently with a wooden spoon for 15 minutes, or until mixture is very thick.

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