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How to cook Polenta

Polenta or La Polenta as the Italians call it is a maize porridge that is either served as a soft puddle on the plate or left to firm up where it can be served in slices or griddled or baked. Here's everything you need to know about cooking polenta so that it is smooth and creamy and lump-free. You need to buy the polenta that is pre-cooked. You can cook it with water or stock for added flavour, though it does affect the appearance.

What is Polenta?

Polenta is ground cornmeal or maize: it has been used in Ireland for decades but it is a staple of northern Italy, where it has become fashionable in the last 20 years. You can buy it coarsely or finely ground. It is called maize flour when it is really fine and as it gets more coarsely ground, it is usually labelled 'polenta'.

Polenta Ratio of Water or Stock to Polenta

You can use water or stock to cook maize flour/polenta:  if you are serving it with chicken, cook it in chicken stock or a mix of water and stock; if you are making it with a fish dish, you could add some fish stock to the water and so on. However, keep in mind that the stock needs to be clear or it will turn the polenta a murky colour and while it will taste great, it may not look that good.

The ratio for cooking polenta is:

Maize flour or very fine Polenta: 600g maize flour to 1-1½ litres water or stock
Medium ground Polenta: 3 parts water or stock to 1 part fine polenta
Coarsely ground Polenta: 5 parts water or stock to 1 part coarsley ground polenta

You should never add the water all at once: always boil all the water and just before adding the polenta, ladle out about a third of the boiling water and set aside in a bowl (see technique below) and only add it if you need it, that is if the polenta gets too thick.

Polenta Recipe

This recipe doubles or halves easily.

1½ litres cold water
Good pinch of salt
600g maize flour
Grated parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper

1. Boil the water in a large saucepan and when it is boiling, add a good pinch of salt. Gently pour about a third of the boiling water into a bowl or jug - keep this on the side in case you need it to loosen the polenta. You may not need all the water but if you do, you need to add hot water or otherwise the polenta will become lumpy.
2. Add the polenta gradually to the remaining boiling water and cook, stirring with a whisk, over a low heat until you get a smooth mixture free of lumps.  Stir in one direction only. The mixture will bubble up so be careful as it is hot. Cook over a low heat for about 20 minutes, stirring occasionally. If the mixture becomes too thick add some of the boiling water that you set aside. When it is ready, stir in grated parmesan and black pepper to taste, then pour into a dish for serving or serve on individual plates.

Polenta Recipe Tips

How to fry or griddle Polenta:
If you want to cool the polenta and fry it later, pour it into an oiled dish which you have lined with cling film and leave to set. You can then cut the polenta into triangles or squares and cook in butter or olive oil in a griddle pan to give it an attractive appearance. You can also use a circular cutter to make circles of polenta to fry or bake - they are useful for serving a piece of fish on for a decorative presentation.

How to make Herb Polenta
– For a herb polenta, stir in finely chopped fresh herbs (oregano, sage, basil, thyme, tarragon, even rocket leaves) at the end with a good knob of butter or a good drizzle of olive oil. Go easy on the sage or oregano as they are very pungent when fresh.

How to make Cheese Polenta
Stir in grated Parmesan, a dollop of Mascarpone, some crumbly goat's cheese or Irish Ardsallagh or some aged Pecorino and eat on its own in a big bowl.

Meat sauces with Polenta
– Any beef with red wine sauce goes brilliantly with polenta as does a good venison or boar stew. Serve it with a robust meaty Italian red wine.

Wild mushrooms with Polenta
– Fry any wild mushrooms in olive oil and butter and toss with herbs and serve on top of soupy polenta or with griddled polenta triangles (porcini or ceps are especially good but you can make a passably good dish with Portobello mushrooms). Drizzle with some truffle oil and you will die and go to heaven.

Tomato Sauce and Polenta

Make this wonderful herby Italian tomato sauce to serve with griddled pieces of Polenta. This sauce is also good served with spaghetti.

1 onion, medium
1 carrot, small

1 stalk of celery

2 cloves garlic, peeled, halved and green stem removed

4 tablespoons olive oil

250g peeled fresh tomatoes (or 1 tin of tomatoes 400g, drained)

6 basil leaves, torn

2 leaves of sage, chopped

Leaves of 1/4 sprig of rosemary, chopped

1. Chop the onion, carrot and celery into small chunks. Place in a saucepan and season with salt and pepper. Fry in olive oil with the garlic over a low heat until softened and lightly browned (about 20 minutes).

2. Add the tomatoes, basil, sage and rosemary and stir. Bring the sauce to the boil, then turn it down and cook it over a low heat for 45-60 minutes (the oil will rise to the surface). Stir with a wooden spoon every so often to make sure it doesn't stick. When the sauce is ready, break it down with the wooden spoon until it is homogenous or you can push it through a mouli or conical sieve.
 Use immediately or cover and keep it for up to 3 days in the fridge. It also freezes well.
3. Serve on top of the soft polenta or on triangles of griddled polenta. If you wish, you can serve some fried mushrooms on top with a drizzle of truffle oil.

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