Thursday, July 14, 2011


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"Poooooo-len-ta." If you ever read "Heat" by Bill Buford, those words ring true and somewhat intimidating. Polenta is, like a lot of Italian dishes, easy to do mediocre but difficult to do great (that's just my opinion).

I have made polenta four times. Two times it was a disaster. The first I made was a soft polenta, which was good but pretty bland. The second time I tried I made a pan seared polenta from Anne Burrell. Honestly, I was not a fan, it was a little herby for me and WAY to salty (that was my own fault). Third times a charm, right? Considering polenta was getting ready to make the banned list in my house, I certainly hoped so. I went down to the store and bought some more (I buy it from the grain sections in a health food store, you can buy it by weight and it's generally fresher and higher quality) and gave it one more go.

The polenta I made was different, slightly Spanish in style, and grilled. I used smoked paprika, some mascarpone cheese (carryover from the previous polenta), parsley, herbs, and a combination of milk and water. One thing I immediately discovered. Mascarpone, while a favorite of many chefs, doesn't really do anything for me here in polenta. I would actually save myself the money and use cream cheese or some other really soft cheese. Just a preference, but I'm on a budget here.

The key with polenta is the stirring. You have to stir it, not all the time, but enough so it absorbs all of the liquid and develops a nice, silky texture. You also have to let it cook for a while, even if that means adding a bit more liquid again and again. Your patience will be rewarded.

This is the recipe for "hard" polenta, I will post my recent success for "soft" polenta later this week.

Grilled Polenta

1 cup milk
2 1/2 cups water
1 teaspoon smoked paprika
1/2 teaspoon chile powder
1/4 teaspoon cayenne pepper
1 cup polenta
1/4 cup chopped parsley
1/4 cup cream cheese
olive oil

In a medium saucepan over medium high heat combine the the milk, water, paprika, chile powder, and cayenne. Bring to a boil (be careful to stir and not scald the milk) and season with salt, a bit generously.

Slowly pour in polenta while whisking.  Once incorporated, use a heat proof spatula or wooden spoon to stir polenta constantly until thick.  If it becomes very thick add a bit more water to loosen it up.  You will probably need to do this multiple times.  Cook until polenta is smooth, about 25-30 minutes.  It should not be grainy when you taste it.  Stir in parsley and cream cheese. Season with salt to taste and remove from heat. Line a 9x9 baking pan with plastic wrap or parchment paper and pour polenta into pan.  Cover top with plastic wrap and press into a smoothed, even surface.  Place in refrigerator for 2-24 hours.

To Grill: Preheat grill to high heat, scrape down grates and oil well.  Remove polenta from pan and pat dry with paper towels.  Cut into squares and brush with olive oil liberally.  Once grill is hot grill polenta for about 3 minutes on each side or until nicely crisp on the outside.

To Pan Fry: Preheat a non-stick skillet over medium high heat and add olive oil to coat.  Cut polenta into squares, pat dry with paper towels and add to pan, cook until golden brown on each side.