How can something so lush taste so… blah? Looks can be deceiving. If I were a Brit, I’d probably describe the flavor of polenta as subtle. But I’m not and thus I won’t sugarcoat it: cornmeal, as most cereals by nature, is bland with a capital B.
As a friend smartly put it, polenta does not inspire superfandom in most people. It’s rather a love-hate relationship and indeed, no matter how much I wanted to like it, I was always quite underwhelmed by this dish. I gave chance after chance to it, and it let me down repeatedly.
It’s because I’ve expected it to be something it simply is not. Truth is, cornmeal doesn’t especially taste of anything but corn. Make peace with that. But, flavor and polenta are not mutually exclusive at all. In fact, cooked cornmeal only comes into its own when prepared with loads of seasoning.
Polenta is a great vehicle for flavours, a neutral background to something more palatable. Actually, eating it without any “disguise” would be ludicrous in my world. (There must be people out there who like it as-is. If you’re one, I’m not here to judge! 🙂 )
I actually came to appreciate the strengths of this simple, rustic dish. You should throw your apprehensions aside too (if any) and let the simplistic beauty of this Northern-Italian rural staple shine through. I hope this version I made the other day for a light lunch will inspire you to add cornmeal to your pantry!
Although it is basically very simple, there are a few tips and tricks when making polenta. Don’t fall for the “you absolutely must use a wooden spoon and you must stir in only one direction” BS though.
First of all, a 4:1 water-cornmeal ratio seems like the way to go. It’s also vital to add the cornmeal slowly to the salted, boiling water while stirring constantly. Otherwise, you’ll end up with lumps.
After that, there’s no need to continue stirring like a maniac, but more frequently than “from time to time” should be necessary as polenta has a habit of catching in pans. In any case, you need to keep an eye on it throughout.
When all the liquid is sucked up, the grits cohere into a thick mass and the polenta starts pulling away from the side of the pan as you stir, it’s ready.
And now it’s time to add the oomph! First, salt and freshly ground black pepper. Next, crushed garlic: as much as you think you can handle, and then some more. Now’s the turn of blanched and roughly chopped spinach. Since cheese is always a good idea, stir in a pile of grated parmesan or Grana Padano as well. Finally, you can either add in a tablespoon or two of butter, or drizzle generously with extra-virgin olive oil before serving.
Have you spotted it’s neither one of those cheeses in my photos? Good eye! It’s telemea, a fresh cheese from Romania that’s matured in brine. Somewhat like feta, but the texture is different – this is more on the crumbly side rather than creamy. It’s most commonly made of cow’s milk, but partly buffalo milk products are sometimes available, a real delicacy.
Whenever I’m traveling in the region or know someone who’s headed there, I buy straight from this producer located at picturesque Torockószentgyörgy (Colțești) village. I had the good fortune to taste many of their products and they are so so good! I’m telling you, things like 50% sour cream are what dreams are made of.
*Disclaimer: I like and use the products mentioned in posts on My Chest of Wonders. What I write about such items represent my genuine and unbiased opinion, I am not being compensated in any way through sponsorship or gifts.*