There's no way around it: Making real, from-scratch creamy polenta is a pain in the ass. Right from the jump: You have to find the right kind of cornmeal, and it's annoying; then you have to cook it for a long time, and that is also annoying; and god, what if you fuck it up, after all that, won't that just be the most annoying thing.
And all the while, there are logs of pre-cooked polenta in the refrigerated section at your crappy supermarket, and boxes of "instant" polenta mix in with the Rice-A-Roni and shit, and wouldn't it be easier to just whip up some of that crap and cross the distance between it and the real thing via the magical transporting powers of imagination?
The answer: yes. But that is no way to live a human life. Let's make some real-deal, from-scratch creamy polenta. If some wizened northern Italian grandmother with hands like Rip'n Chick'n can do it, by God, so can you. And you shall!
To begin, track down some coarse yellow cornmeal. "No big deal," you are saying aloud, to yourself, in the crowded public restroom. "I will traipse merrily down to my local generic supermarket, where surely they will have some of this coarse yellow cornmeal in the baking section with all the other cornmeals and flours and whatnot." Ha ha, no they will not. They will not have coarse yellow cornmeal in that section of the supermarket.
"Oh, well," you are shrugging. "Then surely they will have it in the cereal aisle, with the grits, which after all are basically just a white version of the same thing!" Nope! There will be no coarse yellow cornmeal in the cereal aisle, either.
"Maybe you should just tell me where I can find some coarse yellow cornmeal," you are saying. "This gimmick has worn itself out." Right you are, my friend. Right you are.
The truth is, most big, generic supermarkets won't have coarse yellow cornmeal at all. They'll have grits—instant and old-fashioned—and they'll have regular yellow cornmeal of the variety you use for making, say, cornbread or hush puppies, but they won't have coarse yellow cornmeal. Why is this? The answer, I'm sorry to say, is, "It is all Dan Snyder's fault; please toilet-paper his home for justice."
So, who does have coarse yellow cornmeal? Specialty Italian grocery stores, for one; if your town includes one of these, hie thee to it pronto. Also, fancy-pants gourmet grocers and Whole Foodses tend to have it. You can order it from many dozens of different internet grocers, too. This is all to say that you have no excuse for failing to acquire some coarse yellow cornmeal.
"But why use coarse yellow cornmeal?" you are sobbing, holding a canister of white stone-ground hominy grits aloft in the middle of the Bi-Lo and stamping your feet like a toddler. "Whyyyyyyyy????" The answer to that question is: Because coarse yellow cornmeal makes the tastiest polenta, and if you are not making the tastiest polenta, then there is no reason to make polenta, because a deliberately mediocre output will not justify the annoying tedium of polenta-making.
(Also: Non-coarse yellow cornmeal involves different cook-times and liquid measurements, and to hell with all that.)
So you've gotten your hands on some coarse yellow cornmeal; you had to stow away in a boxcar and kill a hobo in a fire-lit knife-fight along the way, but you're ready to make polenta. Great! Boil some damn liquid. About that.
Polenta will require, oh, about four cups of liquid for each cup of dry cornmeal. Many polenta recipes will instruct you to use chicken broth for this liquid; if that's the way you want to go, please do not allow my passive-aggressive head-shaking and shrugging and disappointed tooth-sucking sounds to dissuade you, even though your polenta will taste like broth and not like polenta; even though this will amount to an unmemorable missed opportunity to appreciate the mild and subtle flavor of polenta and not the boring and familiar flavor of chicken broth; even though the barbarous 16th-century transatlantic explorers who brought maize from the New World to Europe at great risk to their lives and in so doing introduced it to the people who would go on to invent the wonder that is polenta will sit up musty and skeletal in their graves and rasp grumpily that if they'd known that the internet users of the 21st century just wanted a porridge that tasted like chicken and not corn, they could just as easily have stayed home and played bocce, I mean, who wouldn't prefer playing bocce to riding a fucking sailboat across the ocean twice. No no, go right ahead. Use broth.
On the other hand, if you'd like to use a 1:1 ratio of water to milk, this will output a mild, subtly but pleasingly corn-tasting polenta that will pair wonderfully with damn near anything, and also won't at all make you think of chicken-flavored oatmeal and shame. Good for you.
Two cups of dry cornmeal and eight cups of liquid will produce a metric buttload of creamy polenta: more than enough, likely, for four hungry adults to chow down to their contentment. If that seems like too much, don't worry, we'll do something fun with the leftovers.
(A note, here: Another thing many polenta recipes will recommend is that you salt the water before adding the cornmeal. This is a great idea if you particularly enjoy the realization that you have over-salted a huge pot of food that took an hour to cook, and that you're essentially powerless to fix it, and that you always ruin everything, and that now you have ruined one more thing, and that this is why you will die alone, alone and forgotten, alone and forgotten and unloved.)
(You see, the problem with salting the water before you add the cornmeal is that much of this water will evaporate and leave the polenta over the next hour or so, leaving the salt behind with less and less water to dilute it. Then you taste your polenta at the end, and it tastes like drowning your tongue in the Dead Sea, and nobody wants that. A better idea is to salt the polenta at the end, when it's done cooking, adding the salt in increments and tasting as you go, to give yourself maximum control over the saltiness of your polenta. Do that instead.)
Now your liquid is boiling. Pour your cornmeal into the boiling liquid in a steady stream, stirring vigorously and constantly as you do. This will prevent the cornmeal from clumping as it falls through the liquid. Continue stirring the liquid nonstop for another three minutes or so; this seems excessive, but it'll pay off in polenta that'll mostly stay lump-free throughout the cooking process.
That's most of the cooking technique involved in making polenta, right there. Lower the heat to a simmer, partially cover the pot so there's plenty of room for steam to escape, and set a timer for 45 minutes. Now you can go watch some footba—
Psych. You're not going anywhere. Keep a big wooden spoon handy, bub, because you're gonna have to stir the polenta at least—at least!—every five minutes for the next 45 fucking minutes. Yep. It's true, and completely necessary. This frequent stirring prevents the thickening polenta from forming a thick burnt crust on the bottom of your pot; it enables the polenta to become smooth and creamy instead of lumpy and sad; it facilitates something called "starch gelatinization," which is a pair of science words that have something to do with intramolecular bonds and something called birefringence and, look, dammit, will you just stir the friggin' polenta, please? Stir the polenta. Come back every few minutes and stir the polenta.
That's it. That's cooking polenta. That's all there is to cooking polenta. Stir it, then let it simmer, then stir it, then let it simmer, then stir it, then let it simmer, then stir it, and so on. At first you will think that things are happening very quickly: Look how it thickens in those first few minutes! Why, only a moment ago it was a pot of watery liquid with some dry cornmeal piled on the bottom, and now it is this new and thickening substance with cornmeal suspended throughout it! And thicker! And thicker still! Surely 41 minutes have gone by. Surely this polenta is nearly done! Look at it go!
Nope. It has been nine seconds. You have a long way to go.
Then it will seem as though nothing is happening. My God, my God, this stuff is just as watery now as it was 12 minutes ago. Maybe I added too much liquid. Oh man, did I add too much liquid? Maybe I should scoop some liquid out. Oh no, there's only 21 minutes left, and this stuff is still as watery as tomato soup. Maybe this is a prank. Maybe the Internet Food Person is pranking me. If I see this on fucking Jimmy Kimmel's show, I will do murders. Nineteen minutes left. Still watery. Is that a camera? Oh God, has my smoke detector been replaced by a camera? How much of my life is a lie? Oh, who am I kidding, it has all been a lie, a damn dirty lie.
This is what scientists refer to as "Polenta Madness." Hang in there. At around the 40-minute mark, you'll look up from where you have been whispering secretive, conspiratorial gibberish to the mustachioed faces you drew on your hands and notice that when you stir the polenta, it doesn't level out right away. When you push a bunch of it to one side of the pot, it doesn't hurry back. Why, it is almost as thick as oatmeal! This is not a hallucination. The aliens are, but this is not. This is a sign that your polenta is nearly done.
You know that frenzied sensation you get, when you've been stuck in the car on a road trip to the beach for hours and hours and hours, and you finally get close, and suddenly the interior of the car seems half the size it was when you originally departed, and you can actually feel the destination like a magnet pulling on your brain? And every stoplight is an affront, every Yield sign an insult, every pedestrian a speedbump? And you finally park the car at your destination and explode through the windshield and run shrieking and weeping and cartwheeling to the sand and across the sand and into the ocean and to Portugal? The last few minutes of polenta-making are like that, with the crucial difference that, if you intend to obey your urge to run directly into the polenta, you probably ought to call an ambulance first.
There. Your polenta is cooked: thick and sticky, almost like oatmeal, but infinitely smoother and creamier, and yellow, and corn-smelling, and way too hot for swimming oh no don't. Remove your pot of polenta from the heat and finish your polenta. Finishing polenta means adding whatever other stuff you want to add to it before you serve it. The only thing it likely needs at this point is salt; beyond that, you've got a few options. Extra-virgin olive oil and freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano are a familiar combination, or you can go fancy-pants with crème fraîche and Grana Padano cheese, or you can just stir in a couple tablespoons of good unsalted butter. This last option is a good one if you know you'll have leftover polenta, because it won't lock you into a particular flavor profile when you use the leftovers, and also it just tastes good as hell: buttery and corny and straightforward and delicious.
That's it! You made polenta. Now let's eat polenta.
Your polenta is perfectly delicious as it is; scoop some into a bowl and go to town, if you want. It works as breakfast or lunch all by itself: warm and mild and satisfying. For dinner, ladle a nice creamy puddle of it into the middle of a plate with a raised rim and top it with roasted vegetables, or anchovies and mushrooms and sausage, or some red meat braised in tomato sauce. It'll cooperate nicely with any of these, and more, which is its virtue: It will be what you want it to be, so long as you want it to be creamy and hearty and delicious.
If you wind up with any leftover polenta, spread it evenly across a parchment-lined cookie sheet and sock it in the refrigerator to firm up overnight; in the morning, cut the polenta into bullion-shaped bars, wrap these in aluminum foil, and seal them into a storage bag in the freezer. What will you do with them?
Why, you'll fry them, of course. Doesn't seem like it was all that much work now, does it?
La la la la I'm not listening.
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Albert Burneko is an eating enthusiast and father of two. Peevishly correct his foolishness on Twitter @albertburneko, or send him your creepy longform hate-missives email@example.com. Image by Sam Woolley.