Polenta. What is it exactly?  It sounds like something exotic and crazy.  But really, it is such a simple dish that has the potential to be extraordinary!  For those of you who grew up in the south, polenta is no more than Italian grits.  Now I know some will cry out that "Grits and polenta aren't the same thing!"  Well, yes and no.  You see polenta and grits share some very fundamental and basic attributes.  Polenta and grits are both essentially dried ground corn that is slow cooked in hot liquid to make a porridge like concoction.  Both can be cooked with water alone, but we all know they are better with butter and cream.  And both can be creamy and runny or as hard as mortar. The key differences are really what they are made of and what you put in them.  Polenta is generally made with ground yellow cornmeal while traditional grits are made from hominy.  Polenta has an Italian slant to it, meaning that any spices or seasoning as well as cheese added to it will be Italian.  Grits usually are associated with Southern cuisine and served as a side dish with little to nothing added although cheesy grits are an exception. 

Now that we have that comparison out of the way, lets talk more about polenta.  At work I have become somewhat of an expert polenta maker.  In fact, I had to save my sous chef's polenta when he was about to do a chef's table!  That polenta turned out so well that one of our customers insisted on the recipe (provided below).  Since I usually make large quantities and I usually make mine by feel and instinct, I had to sit down and think about it.


So what makes a good polenta?  The first thing you have to know about polenta is how you want to serve it. As stated previously, polenta can be creamy and almost fluffy like good mashed potatoes, or nice and firm like a piece of cornbread.  Knowing what you are going to do with your polenta before you start goes a long way to achieving that goal.  Next, you have to let the polenta dictate how it will cook and how much you will need.  As much as a recipe calls for certain amounts and times, it really comes down to how the food behaves and how you react to that.  Lastly, good polenta takes fat and calories.  It is difficult to make really good polenta that is low cal.

Here are a couple of tips and tricks for good polenta making:

When buying your ingredients, don't be fooled into buying fancy packages of "polenta mix".  It is all just cornmeal.  The cornmeal is just as good for about a third of the price.

Don't get cornflour.  You generally want coarsely ground cornmeal.  Cornflour is just really finely ground cornmeal. For whatever reason, I have found that it does not make for good polenta.  It just ends up grainy.

Polenta will continue to cook even after you take it off the fire.  That means it will get thicker.  Take it off the heat a bit before your desired consistency.  Keep in mind when you are adding your cheese that it will also add density.

If your polenta ever ends up too thick or dense, just add some hot liquid to loosen it up.  At work I use hot water from the pasta machine.

If you are transferring your polenta to a serving dish, spray your dish and whatever utensils you are using to transfer with cooking spray.  This makes serving it easier. 

For firm polenta that can be cut into shapes, add enough cornmeal to make it difficult to stir, but not impossible.

When making polenta for cutting, make sure you spread it in your dish or baking pan before it sets.  You can now cool it and save it for later.  Once you are ready to serve it, you can reheat it by baking, grilling or searing it.

Polenta is versatile.  You can add anything from mushrooms to sundried tomatoes.  Get creative.

Recipe:

1 cup milk (2% works well)
1 cup cream
1/2 cup water
2-3 cloves of garlic minced (garlic powder works in a pinch)
3-4 tbsp Italian Seasoning  or fresh herbs1/2 to 1 cup coarsely ground cornmeal (grits can serve as a substitute)
1/4 to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or your favorite Italian cheese
1/4 to 1/2 stick of unsalted butter
Salt and Pepper to taste (if you can, use white pepper)

Mix your milk, cream and  water in a sauce pan big enough to hold double the volume of the liquid.

Add your minced garlic to the liquid. You can also choose to add the dried herbs now, or wait until later.  If using fresh herbs, it is best to wait.

Heat your liquids on medium high heat until they simmer.  Do not allow liquid to boil over or scorch on the bottom. 

Once the liquid is simmering, begin to add the cornmeal a little at a time slowly, whisking continuously to avoid lumps.  As the cornmeal cooks it will thicken slightly.  Once you have reached your desired thickness, lower the heat.

Add your cheese, butter, seasoning and herbs(if you have not done so already).  Keep stirring the mixture until the cheese and butter are completely incorporated.
 

Serve and enjoy!