Photo by Hillary Ehlen
The subtle art of marketing unique food items is alive and well in restaurants across the country, especially in the Midwest. I’ve struggled for years now to find effective ways to promote items that possibly sound unappealing to the masses. Polenta is the perfect example of a food that requires some form of literary enhancement in order for folks, unfamiliar with the dish, to want to order it. After all, polenta is technically an Italian porridge. Porridge! Not the most appealing culinary description, really.
What is polenta? This is a question that our restaurant staff hears almost every day. How they answer determines whether the dish sells. Rather than refer to it as porridge, we typically compare polenta to creamy grits. Grits aren’t exactly the most popular dish with Midwesterners, but it outdoes porridge any day.
Like many foods, I find that when someone allows me the opportunity to serve them polenta for the first time, they are sold. They never knew they could love porridge so much! It’s so creamy and delicious, not to mention it’s just about the least expensive food you can imagine.
Polenta consists of cornmeal, liquid and a fat of some sort. I like to start by sautéing a little shallot. I dust the pan with a pinch of dry oregano and then deglaze the pan with a dry white wine. I add some chicken stock and some heavy cream and bring to a simmer. Add some coarse ground cornmeal and simmer or bake until a creamy texture is achieved. Honestly, it’s a bit more involved than I’m making it sound. Make sure you read the recipe directions and fully understand the proper liquid to cornmeal ratios and techniques.
Polenta is neutral in flavor and can be served with just about anything. Seafood, poultry, pork–you name it. Polenta can be served as is, creamy and free-formed, or it can be cooled and cut into a particular shape and pan-fried for a unique texture and presentation. Keep in mind that many grocers sell course ground cornmeal labeled as polenta. This simply refers to the fact that the cornmeal in this package is suitable for making polenta. Cornmeal is cornmeal no matter the coarseness. The finished product is referred to as polenta.
Polenta is one of the easiest and most cost-effective dishes you’ll ever make. Convincing someone to try it for the first time? Now that’s a bit more challenging.
2 oz. butter
½ ea. shallot, minced
1 tsp. dry Oregano Leaves
¼ cup dry white wine
4 cups chicken stock
1 cup heavy cream
1 cup corn meal, course ground
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt one ounce of butter in a medium saucepan. Add shallots and oregano and sauté until shallots are translucent. Deglaze the pan with white wine. Add chicken stock and heavy cream. Bring liquid to a simmer. This is a very important step, the liquid must be simmering before cornmeal is added.
Slowly add cornmeal to the liquid, stirring constantly and quickly as to not create lumps. Bring the polenta to a simmer. Be careful, because it will bubble and shoot hot polenta toward you.
Remove the pan from the heat. Place a tight-fitting lid on top or tightly cover with aluminum foil and place in a 300-degree oven. Bake for approximately 30 minutes (but stir the mixture every 10 minutes). Once the polenta is removed from the oven, stir in the remaining one ounce of butter. Season with salt and pepper. Serve with freshly shaved parmesan and any additional ingredients you may wish to add.