Polenta, a coarsely ground yellow cornmeal porridge dish, is similar to a variety of grain mushes eaten around the world, from the grits of American Southern cookery to Romanian mamaliga to South-African mealie-meal, says Leah Zeldes of Dining Chicago. Cooked polenta is often used as the starchy base for a sauce, stew or other main dish, much as rice is used in Asian cuisines. You can serve it with a poached or fried egg or sausage links on top. Polenta can be served for breakfast or as a side dish.
Soft polenta does not hold its shape once it's removed from the pot; it's best served in a bowl or spooned into a soft pile onto a plate and topped with a sauce or stew. Note that pre-cooked polenta in a tube cannot be prepared this way; you'll need to use dried meal if you want your polenta soft. To prepare, use five times as much liquid as polenta. Bring water or stock to a boil; add salt and slowly whisk the polenta into the water. Continue stirring until the polenta starts to thicken. Turn the heat to low until it is barely bubbling. Stir occasionally until the polenta has absorbed all the water and the cornmeal tastes thoroughly cooked. Add butter and, if desired, grated Parmesan or other cheese to the dish to finish.
For firmer polenta that keeps its shape when cooked, use less water than for soft polenta -- 4 cups of liquid for every cup of polenta. After cooking it in the same manner as for soft polenta, pour the mush into a shallow greased bowl or onto a greased jelly roll pan. Let the polenta cool to room temperature; then flip the pan or bowl over, remove the polenta and cut it into slices. If you are using pre-cooked polenta from a tube, you may merely open the package, slice it and serve.
Polenta is traditionally made on the stovetop, but you can try a no-stir variation by baking it instead. Grease an oven-safe nonstick skillet or cast-iron pan. Use five times as much liquid as cornmeal, plus a small amount of salt. Place it in a preheated 350 degrees Fahrenheit oven and bake it for about 50 minutes. Let it stand 10 minutes before serving. For firmer polenta, use less water.
Slices of firm polenta can be grilled or fried to add extra flavor. Simply allow polenta to firm up to room temperature and slice. To grill, brush the slices with olive oil and place on a grill rack or grill pan. Cook on one side for 3 to 4 minutes; then turn and cook the other side for 3 to 4 minutes or until dark-brown grill marks appear. For pan-fried polenta, heat a small amount of olive oil in a saute pan over medium heat. Add the polenta slices and cook 3 to 4 minutes until the polenta slice begins to brown. Turn and cook the other side in the same manner. This is a good way to utilize the precooked polenta in a tube found in some supermarkets. Grilled polenta slices can be served as a side dish, or you can try them as the base for crostini or individual polenta pizzas.