I guess if I were to keep it current, I would call this “No-Fail Polenta.” But using verbs as nouns and vice versa (“I was tasked with making no-fail polenta,” e.g.) annoys me. And being annoyed is the opposite of what cooking is all about. So Foolproof Polenta it is.
Polenta, like risotto and soufflés, has an unearned reputation for being finicky. Polenta is as unfinicky as it gets. Traditionally, polenta is made by bringing a copper potful of water to simmering over low heat and then sifting the cornmeal through your fingers almost a grain at a time while stirring constantly. I have made polenta like that (minus the copper pot) many, many times and the results never disappoint. I still make polenta that way when cooking doubles as stress relief. But most of the time I use the cold water method: stirring cornmeal and cold water together and bringing the mix to a simmer over low heat and then moving on from there.
That’s pretty much all there is to it if you keep two things in mind: First rule: the cornmeal of choice should be coarse-ground. Goya (of all people) sells coarse yellow cornmeal in 1-pound bags. (And it’s cheap!) If you want fancy, try Bob’s Red Mill Coarse Grind Cornmeal. Second rule: you can always thin out polenta as it cooks, but once it passes a certain point—see below—you can’t thicken it up. So, if you are someday tasked to produce an epic no-fail polenta and are looking for a hack, this is how you do it.
Makes enough for 2 large main course servings, with a topping of sautéed mushrooms or other vegetables or at least 4 as a side dish.
½ cup coarse yellow cornmeal
2 cups cold water, plus hot water on the sidelines as needed
¼ cup Microplaned Parmesan cheese
1 tablespoon butter, optional
Whatever else you’d like (see below)
Heat a kettle of water over low heat to keep it hot. Stir the cornmeal and 2 cups cold water together in a small saucepan over low heat. If the saucepan is wider than it is high, so much the better. Bring to a simmer and add a pinch of salt. Whisk and cook until the polenta becomes very thick, about 5 minutes. Switch over to a heatproof spatula and continue cooking over very low heat until for a few minutes until you’re sure the polenta won’t thicken any more. Keep the polenta at a very low heat. Perking is nice; not so nice is when the polenta starts to bubble up like lava and splatter all over your unprotected hands and arms.
Now is the time for your backup water. Add it, a little bit at a time, until the polenta ‘relaxes’ a little. Keep stirring and adding water a little at a time until the cornmeal is tender about 10 to 15 minutes. Every time it tightens up a little, add a little water. Soon you will find the polenta stays the same consistency after you’ve added water. This is when a lot of polenta goes wrong. Don’t add any more water until you remove the polenta from the heat. If the polenta is the right consistency but the cornmeal is still not tender, just keep stirring without adding water until the cornmeal is tender. Remove the pot from the heat, add a final dash of water and stir in the cheese and butter, if using. Remember the cheese and/or butter will loosen up polenta a little too. Spoon the polenta into serving bowls.
Polenta with Sauteed Mushrooms: When the mushrooms are finished and well-browned, pour a few tablespoons of broth or water into the pan to moisten them up a bit. Spoon some of the pan liquid over the polenta and then top with the mushrooms.
Gorgonzola Polenta (pictured above): Omit the butter and stir in about 3 ounces Gorgonola. Choose Dolce (mild) or a fully-aged, crumblier and robust version, depending on your tastes.
Herbed Polenta: If you’re serving polenta as a side dish, pick herbs that go nicely with the main course. Thyme with roast chicken, parsely and sage with meaty stews or chives with just about anything. Figure on about a tablespoon of chopped fresh thyme or sage and 3 tablespoons of chives or parsley. The herb version is very nice if you opted to stir cheese and butter into the finished polenta.