It’s February, which means I’m in the middle of most every self-employed writer’s personal hell—a.k.a. “tax season”—drowning in receipts and kicking myself for not being more organized. It’s an annual ritual. Accordingly, until I get all my little spreadsheets neatly filled out and sent off to the accountant, there won’t be much cooking going on around here. Right now, the roommates and I are mostly subsisting on roasted vegetables and polenta.
Polenta is my go-to “I have no time to cook but my body insists on eating” dish. It’s also a handy staple for when all those gluten-free eating friends I mentioned on Tuesday come over for dinner. It goes with just about anything, costs little more than a box of pasta, and takes just over 15 minutes to make. That is to say, it takes just over 15 minutes to make when you do it my way.
Note: All Italian cooking purists should stop reading now. You won’t like what’s coming next.
First, however, a little history.
The first time I ate polenta, I wasn’t impressed. A roommate picked up the pre-packaged, pre-cooked polenta that came in a tube and cooked it up for dinner. It tasted like chemicals.
The second time I ate polenta, I was equally unimpressed. Some fancy D.C. restaurant served it as a side dish, and I found it bland, grainy, and lumpy. I almost missed the chemicals.
Then, I went to Rome. And everything changed. There, I ate real polenta for the first time. It was a revelation—creamy, rich, smooth, and full of delicate corn flavor. It was nothing like the polenta I’d eaten before. I mean, how could it be? The Roman geniuses had cooked it over a fire, in a large cast iron pot, stirring it continuously for nearly an hour. There was love in that polenta, and I was determined to replicate it once I returned to America.
The only problem was that I didn’t have an open fire in my kitchen. Or a giant cast iron pot. Or, as it turned out, access to the kind of polenta the Italians used. All I could purchase in Steubenville, was the instant stuff that cooked up fast and bland. So, I started playing around, adding some chicken broth here and some cream there, until I had devised an instant polenta recipe that approximated the divine creaminess of the polenta in Rome.
Do you see the creaminess?
I’m sure this recipe is going to give some poor Italian grandmother fits, but trust me, it will make you happy. It makes almost everyone happy. Small children love it. Men love it. Heck, even my pure-blooded Italian friends love it. It tastes better than any polenta you will ever eat in any American restaurant, and almost as good as the polenta they serve at the Taverna di Mercanti in Rome.
As for what to serve with it…just about anything. Use it as a base for stew. Pair it with a pork loin or beef roast. Whip up your favorite red sauce, throw some meatballs in, and call it good. In the summer, I regularly run out to the garden, pick some kale and chard to fry up, then serve it on top of the polenta for lunch. And in the winter, polenta and roasted cherry tomatoes (picked from the garden, then frozen last fall) is our normal Friday night dinner.
So, next time a gluten-free friend comes to dine, don’t panic that you can’t serve spaghetti and meatballs. Just serve polenta and meatballs instead. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Prep Time: 2 minutes
Cook Time: 15 minutes
- 6 cups chicken broth
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1.5 cups instant polenta
- 1 cup shredded Parmesan cheese
- 4 T. butter
- 1.5 – 2 t. kosher salt
- Bring chicken broth and cream to a boil over medium-high heat in a large, heavy-bottomed pot, stirring occasionally to prevent cream from scalding.
- Once the liquid is boiling, very, very slowly pour in the polenta, stirring constantly.
- Once the polenta has thickened to the point that it starts pulling away from the side of the pot (about 5 minutes), remove from heat and stir in butter, Parmesan, and 1.5 teaspoons of salt.
- Taste and add a touch more salt if necessary (it almost always is for me.) Serve immediately.
- If you don’t have heavy cream on hand or if the idea of cooking with heavy cream freaks you out, half-n-half also works great. In a pinch, I’ve even used whole milk and had good results. Just, please, whatever you do, don’t try this with skim milk. I can’t be responsible for that.
- When I say “add the polenta slowly,” I mean “add the polenta slowly,” like 2 tablespoons at a time, stirring all the while. This is what prevents it from being grainy and lumpy. I usually measure out my polenta, then put it in a liquid measuring cup designed for pouring. This makes it easier to control the flow of the polenta into the pot.
- As the polenta thickens, it will get feisty, bubbling and spitting at you. That’s good. When it gets to that point, just turn the heat down a little and don’t stop stirring.
- Whatever you don’t eat can be poured into a dish and refrigerated. You can then cut it into squares and fry it up on the stove the next day. This is as good as eating it fresh. Maybe better.