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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Thursday, November 8, 2001

It's the grind that separates polenta from regular cornmeal

By Joan Namkoong
Advertiser Food Editor

Advertiser features editor Wanda Adams, a proficient cook, asked a very practical question the other day: What's the difference between polenta and regular cornmeal?

I asked myself that same question, and learned: There really isn't any difference, except for the size of the grind (and the price).

Cornmeal can be ground fine, medium or coarse. Regular cornmeal, used for cornbread and other baked goods, usually is ground very fine, almost like flour. Cornmeal used for polenta, a cornmeal mush, is medium or coarsely ground.

Polenta, a northern Italian dish, can also be made of white cornmeal, buckwheat or chestnut meal. Polenta refers to the dish as well as the grain from which it is made. We know polenta best as golden-yellow cornmeal mush, usually eaten hot, flavored with butter and cheese or topped with a sauce. Often, polenta is prepared, cooled until firm, then sliced and pan-fried to a golden brown.

To make polenta, water, broth or other stock is brought to a boil, then cornmeal (1 part to each 3 parts liquid) is added in a steady stream while you whisk constantly to prevent lumps from forming. Then lower the heat as the mixture sputters and splatters; continue to stir until the mixture is creamy and thick.

As the cornmeal cooks, it softens and swells, absorbing the liquid. The longer you cook, the softer and thicker the mixture becomes. Finely ground cornmeal cooks quickly and has a smooth texture; coarsely ground cornmeal retains more texture even with longer cooking.

Butter, cheese and seasonings are added just before serving.

Purists will cook polenta on the stovetop, stirring constantly for 30 to 45 minutes to achieve the desired consistency. Starting polenta in cold water avoids lumps and splatters, say some cooks. I like to make polenta in a covered pot: After adding cornmeal to the boiling liquid, lower the heat, cover the pot and let it simmer over low heat for 30 to 40 minutes, stirring well every 10 minutes. Don't worry if the polenta sticks to the bottom of your pot, you can soak the pot in cold water afterward.

When you turn polenta out onto a platter or serving dish, it thickens even more, becoming firm as it cools. You can pour polenta into a loaf pan and let it cool, then slice and pan fry. You can even cut polenta into shapes with cookie cutters. Instant polenta is available in specialty shops; to make this product, cooked polenta is dried and pulverized to make an instant mix. Rehydrate it in boiling water for a few minutes. Ready-to-eat polenta is available in supermarkets, packed in plastic and ready to slice and heat.

What's the difference between polenta and grits? Grits are made from ground, dried white or yellow corn kernels from which the hull of the corn is removed by an alkali, such as slaked lime or lye.

Grits, or hominy grits, a specialty of the South, are prepared much like polenta, seasoned with butter, salt and pepper or cooled to a firm consistency, sliced and fried. Whole, dried hominy is known as posole in Mexico; when it is ground into flour, it is masa harina.

• • •

Polenta with Leeks

  • 6 cups water
  • 2 cups polenta or yellow cornmeal
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 2 tablespoons butter
  • 8 leeks, white part only, cut into thin strips
  • 1 tablespoon caraway seeds
  • 7 ounces fontina cheese, cut into cubes

Bring water to a boil with a large pinch of salt. Pour in polenta in a fine stream, stirring. Cook about 20 minutes; until polenta is very soft.

Melt butter in a large frying pan over moderate heat, add leeks and caraway seeds. Cover and braise gently, stirring from time to time until leeks are soft. Add fontina cubes, stir a couple of times and remove from heat. Keep warm.

Pour polenta onto individual plates, form a nest and spoon the leeks and fontina into the center. Sprinkle with pepper to taste and serve immediately. Serves 4.

Recipe from "Healthy Italian Cooking" by Emanuela Stucchi (Stewart, Tabori & Chang).