Creative cooks have discovered the joys of playing with polenta Trendy: Much more than mush, the humble Italian dish fits the mold of today's cooking. Why? It's versatile and fun.

June 19, 1996|By Elaine Tait | Elaine Tait,KNIGHT-RIDDER NEWS SERVICE

Welcome to polenta land.

And no, I'm not talking Italy.

The rustic recipe (cornmeal and water are the main ingredients), once considered so homey that the only time you saw it was on an Italian family's kitchen table, has found its way into a multitude of dishes, some downright fancy.

Suddenly it's on the menu at trendy restaurants and on the pages of award-winning cookbooks.

Here's why.

Playing with polenta can be fun. More to the point, it's downright inexpensive fun.

You can mound polenta, mold it, slice it or shape it with cookie cutters.

You can serve it soupy with dried fruits and syrup for breakfast.

Make it firmer and add some butter and flavorings, and it's a great budget lunch.

Fry polenta crisp and it's a snack. Grill it for a great barbecue go-with. Top it with something as simple as cheese and you have a quick, easy entree vegetarians will applaud. Add something scrumptious like meat or mushrooms, and you have an entree fancy enough to put on a upscale restaurant menu.

Because basic polenta costs so little to make, if you mess up you haven't blown a week's food budget.

And you will mess up. Almost everyone does.

My first batch of plain polenta was made from an Italian product that said the cornmeal was precooked. What that meant was that it would cook in just five minutes. What I thought it meant, however, was that I could be less than scrupulously careful stirring the grains into the boiling water.

Which brings me to lesson No. 1:

If you're making polenta the classic way, you must -- I repeat: must -- stir the meal slowly and carefully into the boiling water. What you get when you aren't careful is what looks like a bunch of mushy cornmeal grapes that nothing, not even a food processor, can make totally smooth.

Lesson No. 2: If you can possibly avoid it, don't make polenta the classic way. You will find yourself standing at the range, getting tired, while you stir, stir, stir until it cooks to the point where the polenta forms a mass that comes away from the sides of the pan.

That could take an hour. You have better things to do with your time.

Lesson No. 3: Let Barbara Kafka teach you to make polenta in the microwave. Kafka's book, "Microwave Gourmet" (Morrow), tells how to make the most tender, buttery polenta imaginable with just a couple of stirs.

Her secret is to stir water into cornmeal in a microwave dish. Microwave for six minutes, then stir. Microwave for six minutes more, stir again. Turn off the microwave, add butter and salt. Let stand for three to five minutes or until all the water is absorbed.

Place the cooked polenta in a buttered loaf pan and butter the top surface of the polenta lightly. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate until firm. Not only is this easy to make, it's absolutely delicious.

Lesson No. 4: Although there are prepared polentas on the market -- I found flavored polentas shaped in rolls -- they're considerably more expensive than homemade. Moreover, the three I tried had an unpleasant, slightly sour flavor.

You can flavor your own basic polenta with fresh herbs, cheese, onions, mushrooms, bacon bits or almost any ingredient you like. Just add the ingredients after the cornmeal has absorbed the liquid but before it has been allowed to firm up.

Lesson No. 5: Have fun. My best polenta idea was using plain buttered polenta slices, cut with an evergreen-tree cookie cutter, as a base for my homemade chili. I heated the chili-topped polenta on a microwave-safe plate, then sprinkled it with jalapeno cheese, chopped fresh cilantro and a dab of sour cream. It was as good and eye-catching a dish as you'd find, priced high, at your favorite upscale restaurant.

If you want your child to eat polenta, cut slices with animal cookie cutters. Or spell out a word or name with letters you've carved from firm polenta.

Children generally prefer simpler toppings. Melt some mild cheese over the fancy shapes you've made. Or use some tomato sauce from a jar.

Lesson No. 6: Polenta is a born mixer. Although we think of it as Italian, it wasn't made with cornmeal until the Italians got that grain from America.

Dream up your own combinations. My own favorites are Mexican dishes where I substituted cookie-cutter circles of grilled polenta for the corn tortillas in recipes.

But even a cuisine that doesn't normally use much corn -- Chinese, for example -- can be polenta-compatible. Pepper steak on a mound of hot plain polenta is just one example of an offbeat but pleasing Asian pairing.

For a French hybrid, serve soft, hot polenta topped with rich, creamed mushrooms.

Or sauteed chicken livers.

Or both.

But you get the idea.

Have fun!

Kafka's soft polenta

4 cups water

3/4 cup yellow or white cornmeal

2 teaspoons kosher salt

3 tablespoons unsalted butter

1/8 teaspoon freshly ground pepper

1/4 cup softened Gorgonzola cheese or butter

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