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Carlo Middione's Polenta Facile

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Every week -- often with your help -- FOOD52's Senior Editor Kristen Miglore is unearthing recipes that are nothing short of genius.

Today: The polenta you can abandon is also the creamiest polenta -- even when you add nothing but water.

Polenta Facile

Somehow polenta got itself a reputation for being needy. 

We assumed it wanted to be stirred all the time, or it would burn and stick cruelly to the bottom of the pot. And when we agreed to helicopter-parent it, stirring dutifully with our wooden spoons, it sputtered and spat at us. And it lumped! 

(You know your other name is mush, right polenta? You think you're better than us?)

Cornmeal

It seemed like such a diva that we stopped wanting to deal with it at all, and we started buying it ready-made in tubes (also known, horribly, as chubs). 

But there's a better way! It's a no-nonsense polenta technique familiar to Italian restaurant kitchens everywhere -- and this foolproof, well-written version is courtesy of Carlo Middione's The Foods of Southern Italy.

carlo middione  the food of southern italy

You don't need to be stirring continuously for 45 minutes. You don't even need to be paying very much attention. 

All you need to do is to stir a bit in the beginning, set it over slow-simmering water, and cover it. Use a double boiler if you've got it, or just rig up a smaller bowl or pot and cover with foil. It will (mostly) babysit itself for hours.

Double boiler  Stirring polenta

Covered double boiler

This makes it perfect for a dinner party, or anytime you want to get cooking well before dinner time and go about your business.

Better still, as Judy Rodgers observed -- the longer it sits, the better it gets. Any bitterness fades; every gritty grain swells and turns to cream. You can make it with stock, or add milk or cream or cheese, but even straight water polenta will taste better than it has a right to.

Like any ill-behaved child, all it needed was a time out. 

Polenta Facile

Carlo Middione's Polenta Facile

Adapted slightly from The Foods of Southern Italy (William Morrow, 1987)

Serves 8

1 tablespoon salt
2 cups polenta (not instant)

See the full recipe (and save and print it) here.

polenta

Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].

Photos by James Ransom, except Carlo Middione by Daniel Bahmani

The Genius Recipes cookbook is here! (Well, almost.) The book is a mix of greatest hits from the column and unpublished new favorites -- all told, over 100 recipes that will change the way you think about cooking. It'll be on shelves in April, but you can pre-order your copy now.

Tags: genius, genius recipes, carlo middione, polenta, italy, italian food

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Comments (50)

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3 months ago Susan

Some years ago there was a small restaurant in the Bay Area that served the best polenta concoction I've ever had: very creamy polenta with a dollop of pesto in the middle of the bowl and with thinish slices of cheese (gruyere?) and tomatoes around the edges. I've made it a number of times but never gotten it quite right; this method just might do the trick! Doing it this weekend.

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5 months ago nancy essig

What's the dif between polenta and grits?

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over 2 years ago nutcakes

Ha, I googled to find my favorite easy oven baked way and found my own comment on food52.com help line. This is from chef Gary Danko as published in the San Francisco Chronicle Cookbook back some time.

Preheat oven to 350F. Heat 4 Tbsp olive oil in a heavy pot. Add 1/2 cup minced onion. When translucent, add 1 cup of polenta and stir to coat with the oil. Gradually add 6 cups of boiling water, measured after it boils, while whisking. Add 2 tsp salt. Bake for 35 to 45 minutes. Whisk after removing from oven. It will mound slightly. Serves 4 to 6.

Of course it will continue to firm as it cools but he says you can keep it warm and loose in a water bath to hold for up to several hours.

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over 2 years ago Lauren Beth

Polenta has been a staple in my kitchen for -ever! I use Joyce Goldstein's method of adding polenta/salt to cold water and heating while stirring and have never had a lump. I also cook in glass which holds temperature very steady, turn it way down until it's thick, turn it off and plop a lid on until we're ready for it. Easy-peasy!

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over 2 years ago Helana Brigman

Kristen, this is awesome. It is so true that the longer it sits the better it tastes. The same applies when making my grandmother's vegetable soup recipe. Letting sit and cook just makes the taste worth the wait!

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over 2 years ago Barbara Robertson

Chubs are still great for grilling. Brush each side with olive oil (infused with lemon, rosemary and garlic is even better) and get some nice gill marks on them.

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over 2 years ago koechin

Sounds very good but i think Russ Parsons' version which was featured in the LA Times on 2/18/2010 is even simpler and I've been baking my polenta ever since.I highly recommend the article. don't know how to link things properly but anyone interested can just google Russ Parsons polenta.

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over 2 years ago marya

We use polenta in the Carribean and just call it plain old cornmeal. One way we do it use it for is porridge for breakfast.Now if it is cooked the proper Carribean way, you would use cows milk, condensed milk, evaporated milk, brown sugar, fresh nutmeg, cinnamon sticks and vinalla. You would bring it to the boil and gradually add the other ingredients and put the lid on and then make it to your own thickness. However being that it is from the Carribean, each household has its own version. So with allergies and sensitivities etc, you could make it with almond and rice milk etc, sweeten it with stevia etc and then flavour it with the above spices depending on taste.

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over 2 years ago Marian Bull

I dream of this polenta.

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over 2 years ago ChefManuela

This is a great recipe, we do Polenta to replace bread on crostini and we will teach your method at www.cooking-class-authentic...
The strange thing is that the book calls for southern recipes where polenta in known to be north POLENTONI is how a souther will tease a northern...

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over 2 years ago QueenieFrancie

polenta... yum... but what I find more interesting is that pot! where can I get a double boiler like that?!

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over 2 years ago Kit'sKitchen

I believe it is made in France, but can't remember the name. Google it! ;)

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over 2 years ago gustadora

Brilliant! I'm never buying "chubs" again. I cook my rice in a double boiler and never worry about burning it, too.

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over 2 years ago AntoniaJames

AntoniaJames is a trusted source on Bread/Baking.

Glad you mentioned Ms. Rodgers' suggestion to put a cover on it and let it sit for a good long while. That single step makes a world of difference. (It gives the cornmeal a chance fully to hydrate, plumping it up to give the polenta the most luscious texture.) That, along with using ricotta whey instead of water, took the polenta in my kitchen to a whole new (wonderful) place. ;o)

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over 2 years ago fen1027

Love the idea of using cheese whey!

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over 2 years ago MJprovence

Been doing it this way for years....same for grits and steel cut oats

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over 2 years ago geb1

It can also be made in a microwave very easily.

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over 2 years ago Sara H.

"You think you're better than us?" hahahaha Thanks for this.

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over 2 years ago fen1027

I took a cooking class in Italy, and she taught me to stir the polenta in the water on the stove (to remove all lumps) and then heat to a simmer, and then reducing and adding more water, broth or milk over time if the mixture became to thick. I have never had problems with lumps.

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over 2 years ago RSF

I found a recipe a while back for making polenta in the crock pot-it's no fuss as well. I am also wondering how it would work to cook it like the steel cut oatmeal recipe I found on this site. Water bath in the crock pot - may give that a go just to see what happens. I hate stirring for long periods of time.

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over 2 years ago edna

Fine cooking once published a recipe for polenta made in the oven, and it is the one I have always used since there is no stiring involved, and little chance to burn.

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over 2 years ago Alzone

Fourth request! The pot!