Creamy Polenta

Polenta is really a dish, not an ingredient. Commonly (and mistakenly, I might add) sometimes thought to be a major adjunct to Mexican dishes, “Polenta” is actually an Italian word, and has a European provenance dating back to the 16th century. It is a very common dish in Northern Italy. “Polenta” refers to a dish of boiled cornmeal, or more commonly a cornmeal-type porridge, made from coarsely ground cornmeal. It may be consumed hot as a porridge or allowed to cool and solidify into a loaf, which is then sliced, baked, fried, or grilled.   It has also been made with farro, chestnuts, millet, spelt or chickpeas, but the most commonly used ingredient used to make Polenta is typically yellow corn. The word “polenta” is so widely associated with the Northern Italy region, that the word “polentoni,” in Italian, has come to be a mostly derogatory word which describes these Northern Italian residents as “the big polentas.” (polentoni)

This particular dish is a wonderful adjunct to Braised Country-Style Ribs, and it is adapted from a recipe by Food Network’s Melissa D’Arabian, wherein it is prepared as a side dish for the ribs.  Although I highly recommend it as a partner with the ribs, (it is literally a culinary marriage made in heaven!) I include it here as a stand-alone recipe, as polenta has so many possibilities as a side dish for so many different recipes.  Simple and easy to prepare, and a great alternative to mashed potatoes, which a more commonly used “go-to” side dish..  If you’ve never tried polenta before, give this one a go, I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.  In fact, after you make it once, on subsequent preparations you’ll probably want to make at least a double portion.  Whenever I prepare my Braised Country-Style Ribs, Evelyn and I usually get two servings from the dish, and if you’re like me, most likely you’ll be re-heating those left-over ribs, and making a fresh batch of this wonderful Creamy Polenta side dish to go with.

A lot of chefs and culinary aficionados shy away from every trying to prepare polenta, because their perception is that it’s difficult to prepare. Actually, nothing could be farther from the truth.  Aside from a bit longer cooking time, it’s actually pretty simple to prepare.

One of the first things you should know is that polenta doesn’t have to be made specifically with a product that says “polenta” on the package. (Although you can certainly do that).  There’s nothing wrong with using a product designed exclusively for polenta, but you can just as easily use any medium or coarse-ground cornmeal, and yellow cornmeal is preferred.

“…Use a wooden spoon.  Only stir in one direction.  Make sure the water is boiling before you add the polenta.  Stir it constantly…” Rules, rules, rules, that you will hear many people recite about making polenta.  Admittedly, some of the “rules” are sound, but some of them are also a bit of “kitchenary folklore.” In the final analysis, what’s really most important is to get the ratio of liquid to cornmeal properly balanced, and then allow the mixture to cook long enough for the cornmeal to sufficiently hydrate during the cooking process.

Creamy Polenta – Ingredients:

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Vegetable cooking spray
1 1/3 cups half-and-half
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons butter
1/3 cup coarse polenta, or coarse yellow corn meal (Any medium or coarse cornmeal will work here, whether the package says “polenta” or not)
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Kosher salt
1/2 cup grated Asiago/Cracked Black Pepper Romano/Parmesan cheese blend

NOTE: This is my favorite garnish/topping for any pasta dish but it has many other uses as well.  I buy the cheese wedges at my local grocery store, shred them in the food processor and store in the fridge or the freezer.  Whenever any recipe calls for parmesan, this is usually my go-to ingredient blend that I use in its place.

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small (4-qt) slow cooker
freshly ground black pepper
small (4-qt) slow cooker

Preparation:

Spray the insert of a slow cooker with cooking spray (for easier clean up) and preheat on high.

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In a medium saucepan, add 1 cup of the half-and-half, all of the milk, 1 tablespoon of the butter and the polenta.

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(The black specks in the cheese are flecks of cracked black pepper)

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Season with salt and bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking constantly to keep the mixture lump-free.

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Boil for 2 to 3 minutes.

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Pour the mixture into the slow cooker and cook on high for 2 hours, stirring once or twice per hour.

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Once you are ready to serve, open the slow cooker and whisk in the remaining 1 tablespoon butter, the remaining 1/3 cup half-and-half and the Parmesan.

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Salt and pepper conservatively since the polenta will be served with a robustly salted dish.

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When I made this batch, there were leftovers from a previous dish of my Braised Country-Style Ribs – so they were re-heating up just as the polenta was coming into its final stages.

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Naturally, this polenta dish is best served with the ribs!  Spoon a little of the sauce and vegetables onto the polenta.

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The ribs go well with polenta, mashed potatoes or grits (yellow or cheesy) or even yellow rice, but I highly recommend Creamy Polenta, spooning sauce and/or veggies on top just as you would with mashed potatoes and gravy.

Bon Appetit!

Adapted from a Melissa D’Arabian recipe

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