Cornmeal & Polenta

Cornmeal

PURCHASING
? There are two main styles of cornmeal?steel-ground and stone- or water-ground. Most cornmeal in supermarkets is steel-ground, which means the husk and germ have been almost completely removed. Stone-ground cornmeal retains some of the corn?s hull and germ, making it more nutritious. It?s commonly available in natural food stores.

? Cornmeal comes in three textures?fine (often called ?corn flour?), medium (the texture most commonly available commercially) and coarse (also known as ?polenta?). Masa harina is a special corn flour used to make corn tortillas and tamales.

EQUIVALENTS
? 1 pound = 3 cups uncooked; 1 cup = 4 cups cooked

STORING
? Steel-ground cornmeal: Store almost indefinitely in an airtight container, in a cool, dark place.

? Stone-ground meal: Because the fat in the germ makes it more perishable, refrigerate in an airtight container, for up to 4 months.

USING
? Add a nutty nuance to polenta, cornbread and other cornmeal dishes by first toasting the cornmeal in a dry skillet, stirring occasionally, until golden brown. Cool the cornmeal to room temperature and use for cornbread or other baked goods. For polenta or mush, simply add liquid and cook as usual.

? Oven-toast cornmeal by placing a single layer of it in a shallow baking pan and roasting at 300F for about 10 minutes.

Polenta

TIDBIT Very simply, polenta is cornmeal and liquid, stirred together and cooked until it becomes what many think of as the quintessential comfort food. It?s no longer necessary to stand over the stove, constantly stirring the pot for an hour or more. Today?s polenta can just as easily be made with occasional stirring and can even be made in the oven. Polenta can be served soft or firm, graced simply by grated cheese and butter, or embellished exotically with wild mushrooms and game reductions. However you serve it, polenta is sure to please.

PURCHASING Polenta (essentially medium- or coarse-ground cornmeal) is available in supermarkets, natural food stores and gourmet shops. There are also instant polenta and cooked polenta packaged in tubes.

STORING Polenta can be stored airtight in a cool, dark place for up to 6 months. Stone-ground polenta can quickly turn rancid, so tightly seal and refrigerate it for up to 3 months. Refrigerate polenta in tubes for up to 1 month.

GENERAL
? Since water is the most common liquid used in making polenta, make sure it tastes good. A water that tastes of chlorine or minerals can ruin the flavor of polenta.

? Likewise, the flavor of the cornmeal makes a big difference. The fresher it is, the better the taste.

? Count on 1 cup uncooked polenta making 4 to 6 servings.

? In general, salt the cooking water just before stirring in the polenta; add other seasonings (such as pepper, butter and cheese) 5 minutes before it?s done.

? Flavorings: Although purists feel that salt, pepper, butter and cheese are the only embellishments needed, there are many other ways to flavor polenta. Ingredients including chopped sun-dried tomatoes, lemon zest or sauteed leeks or shallots can be added at the start of cooking, while fresh herbs and toasted nuts should be stirred in 5 minutes before serving.

? Polenta can take 15 to 60 minutes to cook, depending on the age and type used. Even though the mixture can thicken in 10 to 15 minutes, most polenta requires more time to develop the classic soft and creamy texture.

? Let polenta stand for 5 minutes after it finishes cooking; give it a stir before serving.

? Cooked polenta can be kept warm in the top of a double boiler over simmering water for at least 30 minutes.

COOKING METHODS
? Traditional method: Bring 3 cups water to a boil in a heavy, medium saucepan (have another 2 cups water simmering in a second pan). Add 1 tablespoon kosher salt and, stirring rapidly with a whisk to create a whirlpool, slowly add 1 cup polenta. Keep stirring briskly until all the grain is added to prevent lumps. Reduce the heat to low and cook, whisking continually, until the mixture begins to thicken. If you see any lumps, break them up by mashing against the side of the pan. Stir in 1 more cup hot water. Continue stirring the polenta until it begins to pull away from the pan. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or aged Asiago, and freshly ground pepper to taste.

? Cold-water method: Simply whisk 1 cup cornmeal into cold water before heating and cooking as in the traditional method.

? Double-boiler method: Put enough water in the bottom portion of a double boiler to almost touch the upper half; bring to a boil. On a second burner, bring 3 cups water to a boil in the top half of the double boiler. Combine 1 cup cornmeal with 1 cup cold water; rapidly stir the polenta mixture and 1 tablespoon kosher salt into the water in the top portion of the double boiler. Set that pan on the bottom pan and bring the polenta back to a boil. Cover tightly, reduce heat to medium-low and cook until the polenta is tender, stirring every 15 minutes or so. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or aged Asiago and freshly ground pepper to taste.

? Oven method: Preheat the oven to 350F. In a 1 1/2-quart casserole, stir together 4 cups water, 1 cup polenta, 1 tablespoon kosher salt, and pepper to taste. Bake, uncovered, in the top third of the oven for about 40 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or aged Asiago and freshly ground pepper to taste; return to the oven to bake an additional 10 minutes.

? Microwave method: In a large bowl (I use an 8-cup measuring cup), stir together 4 cups water, 1 cup polenta and 2 teaspoons kosher salt; let stand for 10 minutes. Cover with a lid or plastic wrap. If using the latter, either poke a hole in the top or fold back a small corner for venting. Cook on high for 5 minutes. Remove from the oven and stir well. Re-cover and cook for 5 more minutes. Remove from the oven and stir well. Return to the oven uncovered; cook for 3 more minutes. Remove from the oven; let stand for 5 minutes. Stir in 2 tablespoons butter, 1/2 cup grated Parmesan or aged Asiago and freshly ground pepper to taste.

? Firm polenta (for grilling, broiling or sauteing): Cook polenta by the method you prefer, adding flavorings as desired. Remove the polenta from the heat and let stand for 15 minutes. Line a shallow pan with plastic wrap. Turn the polenta into the pan, smoothing the surface with a rubber spatula dipped in cold water. Place another sheet of plastic wrap over the polenta?s surface; cool at room temperature for 30 minutes. Refrigerate for at least 1 1/2 hours before cutting and cooking as desired.

? After serving soft polenta, turn the leftovers into a plastic wrap?lined flat-bottomed pan, smoothing the surface. Cover and refrigerate; cut into shapes and saute.