Today: The polenta you can abandon is also the creamiest polenta -- even when you add nothing but water.
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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?)
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.
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.
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.
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
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I'm an ex-economist, ex-Californian who moved to New York to work in food media in 2007. Dodgy career choices aside, I can't help but apply the rational tendencies of my former life to things like: recipe tweaking, digging up obscure facts about pizza, and deciding how many pastries to put in my purse for "later."