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Polenta is a traditional Northern Italian dish made from boiled cornmeal that has been a staple in Italian cuisine for centuries. It is a simple and hearty dish that can be served on its own or as a base for a variety of toppings and sauces. Despite its humble origins, polenta has gained widespread popularity around the world for its versatility, comforting texture, and delicious flavor.
Polenta can be traced back to ancient Roman times when it was known as puls, a porridge made from a variety of grains, including barley and millet. In medieval times, polenta was made from chestnut flour, which was abundant in the northern regions of Italy. It wasn’t until the 16th century that corn, which had been introduced to Europe from the Americas, became the primary ingredient in polenta.
To make polenta, cornmeal is slowly simmered in water or stock until it thickens and becomes creamy. It is traditionally stirred constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps from forming and to achieve a smooth and velvety texture. Once cooked, polenta can be served hot, topped with a variety of savory or sweet ingredients, or chilled and sliced into wedges to be fried or grilled.
Polenta can also be used as a base for a variety of dishes, such as polenta lasagna, where layers of polenta are substituted for pasta, or polenta cakes, which are a delicious gluten-free alternative to traditional cakes.
The typical ratio for making polenta is 4 parts coarse cornmeal to 1 cup water, though I tend to add a little more, especially when making creamy polenta — to ensure it retains its creamy texture and doesn’t set up too quickly.
4-1/4 cups water (or half vegetable stock and half water)
1 cup (170 g) coarse cornmeal (polenta)
1/4 cup nutritional yeast flakes
1 tablespoon nondairy butter (such as Miyoko’s or Earth Balance)
1 teaspoon salt, added gradually (and you may not use all; depends on your taste)
Freshly ground pepper, to taste
In a 4-quart saucepan, heat the water over low-medium heat until it comes to a full boil. Secure the lid to accelerate the process.
Once the water is boiling rapidly, slowly add the cornmeal, whisking continually as you do to prevent lumps. The mixture will be hot and bubbling, so be careful not to get splattered. Just keep steadily stirring, and don’t walk away.
Once the polenta is fully incorporated and you’re certain you have no lumps, reduce the heat to low, and maintain a gentle simmer while the cornmeal continues to thicken up, just a minute or two.
At this point, cover the pot with a lid, and set your timer for 20 minutes, returning every 5 minutes to uncover it and give it a stir with a wooden spoon. You don’t have to stand at the stove stirring the polenta the entire time; just return every 5 minutes, give it a stir, then re-cover. This will result in the creamiest, silkiest polenta.
After 20 minutes, remove from the heat and add the butter and the teaspoon of salt. Stir until fully incorporated, taste to adjust seasonings, adding additional salt or freshly ground pepper. Cover, and let sit for 5 minutes.
At this point, you can plate up the polenta right away, or continue on to make the polenta squares or fries — below.
Once cooked (as above), the polenta can be spread out in a dish to cool and set. Once firm, it can be cut into squares, triangles, or any other shape you desire.
To make polenta squares or “cakes,” you can use the same basic recipe for traditional polenta above. The key is to allow the cooked polenta to cool and set before cutting it into shapes. This can be done by pouring the cooked polenta into a greased baking dish or sheet pan and spreading it out evenly.
Once it has cooled and set, the polenta can be cut into squares or other shapes and served as a side dish or used as a base for a variety of dishes.
One popular way to enjoy polenta squares is to fry them until crispy and golden brown. They can be served as a side dish or as a base for toppings such as roasted vegetables or tomato sauce.
Nary a week goes by that I don’t make these golden fries of goodness. These fries are perfect as a side dish, a snack, or a starter. For parties, I serve them up in their own individual bowls, along with some dipping sauce. Because the polenta has to set up before you can make the fries, just plan ahead a few hours. You can also set the polenta up overnight.
Once the polenta is set up and you’re ready to make your fries, take it out of the fridge, and cut your polenta into uniform slices resembling large french fries.
Gently brush or spray the polenta slices with oil, and sprinkle with salt and pepper.
Air fryer method
The air fryer is my preferred method for these fries, but you can also use an oven; it will just take longer. Place as many of the polenta fries in your air fryer basket that will fit as a single layer without overlapping, and lightly mist the tops with cooking spray.
Cook in an air fryer to 350 degrees F (175 degrees C), for 15 minutes. Gently flip the fries with a spatula and cook until crispy, about 5 minutes longer, or to your preferred crispiness. Transfer the fries to a paper towel-lined plate. Repeat with remaining fries. Best served while hot, they are perfectly fine at room temperature.
An air fryer is just a compact convection oven, so you can absolutely make these in a regular oven, preferably at the convection setting. Preheat your oven to 350, spread the polenta on a parchment lined baking sheet, bake for 20 to 30 minutes, flipping halfway through, until they reach your preferred crispiness.
Polenta is often considered a staple dish in Italian “cucina povera,” which translates to “poor kitchen” or “peasant cooking.” It was a simple and affordable dish made from cornmeal and water that sustained people for centuries. Today, polenta is enjoyed as a versatile and delicious dish that can be served in many different ways.
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