I’m not exactly sure how my current polenta kick got started, but I suspect that the seed was planted by something I saw on instagram. What else is new these days? A craving for a steaming bowl of silky polenta piled high with all manner of veg had taken root, and there was only one way to satisfy it (and get an arm workout at the same time). Boil some water, stream in a cup of coarse-ground cornmeal and stir, stir, stir.
The secret to achieving a creamy polenta is really more about using enough liquid than about adding an obscene amount of butter or cream. For a silky, spoonable polenta I use a liquid to cornmeal ratio of between 4:1 and 5:1 — whereas with a polenta that I’m going to chill and cut into pieces to pan-fry or bake I’ll use a ratio of about 3:1. The liquid can be water, or it can be a mixture of water and milk (typically 50/50), or broth or stock. Here I use a 4:1 ratio of water to cornmeal, and I finish the polenta with relatively small amounts of milk (1/2 cup) and butter (1 tablespoon) to make it extra luscious. You can forego the milk, in which case I would start with more water (4-1/2 cups rather than 4), and/or the butter if you like. If not including butter, try stirring in a spoonful of goat’s milk chèvre at the end to add flavor and creaminess with less fat content.
I can attest to the fact that a bowl of creamy, garlicky, herb-accented polenta with pan-roasted broccoli, zucchini, and ‘shrooms, and garnished with scallions, olives, and ricotta salata makes a fine lunch or dinner. And as far as leftovers are concerned, this creamier, thinner version still solidifies nicely and is easily sliced after chilling. I love to top a square of leftover polenta with homemade marinara sauce, sliced kalamata olives, grated fontina or mozzarella, and grated Grana Padano and bake it for 10 minutes in the toaster oven at 400 F, then broil for 5 minutes more to brown the cheese. Or pan-crisp a square of polenta in a little olive oil and top it with greens and a fried or poached egg. In my book, the delicious options for leftover polenta are reason enough to make a pot of polenta in the first place.
Creamy Garlic and Herb Polenta with Pan-Roasted Vegetables and Ricotta Salata
extra virgin olive oil
1 cup broccoli cut into bite-sized spears
pinch of red chile flakes
1 medium zucchini, diced (about 1.5 cups)
1 shallot, peeled and sliced
4 large cremini mushrooms, cleaned and diced (about 1 cup)
2 garlic cloves, minced
4 cups water or broth
1 cup coarse-ground cornmeal (aka polenta)
1 tablespoon butter
1/2 cup milk
2 tablespoons chopped fresh flat-leaf (Italian) parsley
2 tablespoons chopped fresh dill
2 tablespoons chopped fresh cilantro
grated ricotta salata or cheese of your choice
thinly sliced scallions
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a heavy skillet (such as cast iron) over medium heat. Add broccoli, season with a pinch of salt and chile flakes, and cook until broccoli is browned and crispy, 5 to 7 minutes, stirring occasionally. Transfer to a bowl and set aside. Add zucchini and shallots and cook in the same manner, and repeat with mushrooms.
Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil in a medium soup pot over medium heat. Add garlic and cook until fragrant, 1 to 2 minutes. Add water and bring to a boil. Season with 2 teaspoons kosher salt. Add the polenta in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to prevent lumps from forming. Turn heat to low and cook polenta, stirring almost constantly, until thick and creamy, 10 to 15 minutes (timing depends on the grind of the cornmeal; the coarse-ground that I use typically cooks in 11 to 12 minutes).
Remove pot from heat and stir in butter, milk, and herbs. Taste and add salt, if needed.
Serve polenta immediately in warmed bowls. Top with vegetables and garnishes of your choice.