Back to Basics: Polenta

Somewhere between metal cans filled with all sorts of things that used to be vegetables and dried beans stuffed in oversized plastic bags stood unrefrigerated with an 18 month shelf life a roll of polenta. Imagine my shock. Here I am, a young girl from Romania, recently moved to Denver, trying to navigate the intimidating isles of pre-packaged foods of her local King Soopers. There stands in front of me the food item that was ingrained in my taste memory since I can remember: polenta. Except that this time, it takes an unrecognizable form – stuffed like a yellow corn sausage in a thick plastic encasing- and it finds itself in an unacceptable context – that of a pre-packaged food that lasts – phew, too long.

I am an avid polenta lover. Most Romanians are. When you grow up in Romania, polenta is normal, traditional, not a big deal. When you grow up here, polenta is intimidating. I have been here long enough to know and understand that there is something foreign about the cornmeal and process of making polenta. Grits-makers aside (love grits!), polenta seems to have the fear-of-cooking undertones that risotto has. And I must tell you, it is much easier.

You decide how it tastes- spicy (add minced hot peppers), cheesy (you know what to add- grated), garlicky (minced), loaded with flavor from any spice that works with your savory palate. And you also decide how it looks- it can be runny like a thick sour cream or hard as a rock on the grill. Just don’t buy the roll.

Polenta, a Romanian Staple

Ingredients: 2 garlic cloves, peeled and minced; 2 cups chicken or vegetable stock; 1 3/4 cup coarse cornmeal or grits ( I am not a fan of the superfine cornmeal- you lose texture); 1/2 cup heavy cream; 3 tablespoons butter cut in small pieces; salt and pepper to taste.

Bring the stock to a boil in a heavy bottomed pot. Add salt to the water – about 1 teaspoon. Add the minced garlic and reduce the heat to a simmer.

Rain the polenta in stirring for a couple of minutes until there are no lumps and the polenta is well absorbed in the water. Cook stirring occasionally for about 20-25 minutes until it gets thick and most of the liquid evaporates. It will be thick- that’s ok. If it gets too thick before the 20 minutes, add a few tablespoons of water. It will incorporate. Add more water as needed.

Turn the store off and start adding the cream in bit by bit stirring constantly to incorporate it. Do the same with the butter. Add salt and pepper to taste. This can be served soft immediately. If it isn’t creamy enough, add more butter or heavy cream. I served it this time with a generous sprinkle of chopped chives. Parsley works great too.

To grill it, set it in a pan in an even layer about 1 inch deep to cool. When cooled, just cut it into your desired shapes and sizes. And what to do with those leftovers? Croutons or Fries! Polenta croutons to add to any salad or main dish: cut up the polenta sheet into desired crouton sizes. Brush with olive oil and sprinkle with salt. Broil turning often for 3-4 minutes until the outside hardens into a crust. For fries: cut up the polenta sheet set in the pan into desired fry size- my suggestion is half an inch by an inch thick and about 3 inches long. Brush with olive oil evenly and bake under a broiler for about 4-5 minutes turning the fries several times to get the evenly crispy.

Share with loved ones; I would too.

Photography by Jennifer Olson.

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  • Saltyseattle

    Love it, Andra. You're onto something regarding a general aversion to cooking polenta, & yet it couldn't be easier. Imagine if they sold tubes of pre-cooked pasta in grocery stores- oh wait- they probably do!!

  • A Plum By Any Other Name

    As an Italian, I can definitely understand your love for polenta. I must admit, my favorite way to eat it is to let it chill … and then fry it! Go figure.

  • Wheels and Lollipops

    We love polenta here , but you are right there is some sort of intimidation when it comes to preparing it. Living in France its more common but even then there are people that refuse to make it because its too *complicated* If they only knew :)

  • Monet

    Wonderful! I had no idea that polenta was such a staple in Romania. But I know that I'm awfully glad that I started using it a few years ago. You can do so much with it…and I appreciate your tips/instructions for preparing it. Have a great day love!

  • islandeat

    Hi, Andra. I am a big fan of polenta, and it's that time of year – I always think of it as a cooler weather dish. Thanks for the post.

    I have given you a "Versatile Blogger Award", with reasons why I chose your site. You should feel free to stop by to click on the image and copy to your site.



  • Sally – My Custard Pie

    I'm looking for inspiration to use up some polenta I have left over from making polenta bread. I never knew that Romanians had such a passion for it. So many great ideas (I've bought that ready made stuff by accident before. I can think of many uses – all of them industrial!

  • Jean

    Gosh, I must admit that I have a bag of polenta (not in a casing!) that's probably past its shelf life. I used to prepare it more often but somehow it's taken a dive on my cooking list. No good reason really and my husband loves it. Will have to remedy this. Didn't know polenta was a Romanian staple.

  • Evan @swEEts

    I am unfortunately one who polenta was alien too.. and I have to admit that I have definitely used the "sausage" polenta.. but I love the taste and texture and am now ready to try out the real stuff :)

  • gringarl

    I love polenta, simple with feta cheese and sour cream, sometimes I add some butter and boiled eggs. I love it grilled too. I love it topped with a garlicky tomato sauce or with some mushrooms in white sauce.

  • gigabiting

    Another polenta lover here. Sweet, savory, all kinds of preparations. I had no idea it was so common to Romanian cooking.

  • sara @ CaffeIna

    I read this post and I thought "it could totally be me the one writing this post" I'm from Northern Italy so polenta has been my bread and most common accompaniment to food growing up. Great job in this post!

  • Magic of Spice

    Love this post…and love polenta :) I know what you mean about the store versions wrapped up in plastic, like they do the hamburger,etc. This is so much better :)

  • Stacey Hurley-Rider

    Andra – loved your descriptive writing and the polenta looks delicious. Thank you for sharing part of your tradition!

  • madge @ vegetariancasserolequeen

    Polenta croutons! Sounds wonderful. Thanks for posting!

  • Baking Barrister

    You know, after I made polenta a bit ago, I realized it's nothing to be afraid of. When it comes down to it, it's kind of a cross between cream of wheat (how to pour it in and not get lumps) and risotto. Way easy. and way good.

  • My Man’s Belly

    Now that it's cooling down again it's time for me to start making polenta again. I'm with you on the pre-packaged tubes though. It's so easy to make that I can't believe people would struggle through eating that pre-made stuff. It hardly tastes like polenta at all.

  • The Mom Chef

    Andra, you have helped me so much. I've always been timid about the polenta thing. Of course, I live in the south and don't make or like grits so that may have something to do with it. But, after having read this wonderful post, I'm going to give it a try. Thanks so much.

  • Gitte

    I must admit that I have never eaten, much less, cooked Polenta but it intrigues me. I'll have to try it some day.

  • Rosemary @ Sprigs of Rosemary

    I have looked at that roll on the grocery store shelf and, for some reason, always think "That can't be right!" I pledge to try the real thing!