The first time I ever encountered polenta was on a plain jane PBS show one Saturday morning (in the days before Food Network!), and I was so fascinated by it that I had to seek it out. After I found it, I taught myself how to make it just based on the instructions on the back of the packet. Having never cooked with cornmeal of any kind before that and after having read a few onerous articles on the subject, I was concerned about the results, but I was lucky that the brand I started with was a good one, and it never gave me any problems. To be on the safer side I started with the oven method which makes a firmer polenta that can be cut into pieces, but later as I started feeling more comfortable with it I turned to cooking it directly in boiling water, and have never looked back. Even now, I come across writings that make it sound as though cooking polenta is rocket science, whereas it really is very simple.
There is something inherently so warming about stirring a pot of polenta over the stove that it has now become a ritual I look forward to every winter, a few times at least. It is also a perfect blank canvas for numerous delicious accompaniments, and there is the comfort of favorite pairings and the joy of discovering some new ones. It is no co-incidence that the best polenta accompaniments are often perfectly suited for the winter season as well, and my current favorites are roasted vegetables, especially root veggies, pan fried brussel sprouts and grated parmesan cheese, and sauteed mushrooms, by themselves, or in a red wine sauce.
Soft, Creamy Polenta
For making basic soft polenta, I start by heating 4 cups of water in a large pot, and when it starts boiling, add about 1 teaspoon of salt, 1-2 tablespoons of butter, and then the polenta, whisking continuously. When it starts to bubble, lower the heat and keep whisking occasionally until the polenta is fully cooked, and starts to become very soft and creamy. For more information, check out this link to the 'The Basics of Polenta Cookery' that covers it all, and even includes several recipes.
Perfectly Round Sliced Polenta
Once polenta is fully cooked and starting to thicken, it can be poured into a flat tray to cool. It will firm up and can be cut into shapes, but here is a tip if you want to eat or serve round slices of polenta but do not like the idea of having to waste all the pieces that would be leftover after cutting out the rounds - after the polenta has completely cooked and is starting to thicken, pour it into straight walled cups or glasses greased on the inside with a little butter. When cooled completely, run a knife around the polenta, and it will come out in one cylindrical piece that you can slice as thick as you like. These slices can be further baked or pan fried, and used with toppings of choice.
Polenta as Dessert
The idea for making polenta kheer just came out of nowhere, but I wouldn't be surprised if some enthusiastic home cook has tried it out already. At home, rawyachi kheer or kheer made out of coarse rawa (rawa in Marathi, sooji in Hindi, semolina in English) was more common than any other type of kheer. It was a simple and quick dessert for any night of the week, when the menu needed a little perk. It is forgiving on the amounts, and so the basic instructions would be to saute a little bit of coarse rawa in a little ghee, add milk, then let it cook for a little while to thicken, and then add sugar. Some cardamom and nuts can be added, time permitting, or it can be left plain. I always liked it at room temperature, or slightly warm.
So once the inspiration struck, I did the same with polenta, and what was most surprising about the end result was that it tasted a lot more like rawa kheer than like polenta.
Kheer is really pretty low on my dessert choices, but this is the stuff of childhood memories, and for a mid-week winter dessert that practically gets done on the literal back burner, this is perfect. It is as comforting as a blanket in the chill, and takes as much effort to make for a dozen as it does for one.
The following proportions would make 2 generous portions, or can stretch out to 3 dainty portions.
1 teaspoon ghee
1/4 cup of medium grain polenta
2 cups plus more milk (whole milk would be nice)
2 green cardamom
4-6 Tablespoons sugar (I like about 5)
few strands of saffron
chopped almonds, pistachios or other nuts, about 2 tablespoons (optional)
In a large wide pan, heat the ghee, and as soon as it starts to melt, add the polenta, and stir it around till it gets coated with the ghee. As soon as it starts to smell like it is being roasted (but do not wait until it changes color), add the milk, and start to whisk it using a wire whisk until it comes to a boil. Lower the heat considerably, and then let it simmer until the polenta cooks fully. This took me about 10 minutes, but polentas differ a lot in their coarseness. Stir occasionally to make sure it does not stick to the bottom of the pan.
In the meanwhile, remove the seeds of the cardamom and powder them finely. Chop the nuts and leave them aside.
If the kheer starts to thicken too much, add a little more milk. Add the sugar, and let everything simmer on the low heat for another 5-10 minutes. After you turn off the heat add the cardamom and crumbled saffron, and let it sit with a lid on it, preferably on the still warm stove. Just before serving add the nuts.
Picture of Polenta Kheer is my entry to the Click Event, where this month's theme is 'Liquid Comfort'.