Chef Dez Cooking in Langley: Polenta an Italian substitute for pasta

If you have cornmeal in your pantry, it is probably the residual ingredient from a cornbread recipe you once tried.

Although cornmeal is very versatile and a staple in every Italian kitchen, I find that it is not very popular here in Canada.

Not only is it the basic component of cornbread, but it is also used to create polenta. To describe it literally, polenta is basically a cornmeal mush that is served as a side dish to a meal.

When I first tried polenta as a child, I was extremely disappointed with the taste of it. All it represented to me was a spoonful of yellow, coarse mush that was tremendously bland.

I have learned over the years that an infusion of richness and flavour makes a world of difference. Now, when I make polenta, I always add butter, a grated flavourful cheese, like Romano, and some freshly crushed garlic.

Polenta is usually served in one of two consistencies: as a loose paste, much like mashed potatoes, or as a solid that has been chilled overnight, cut into shapes, then grilled or fried. It is more often served hot in the mush form, due to the ease of preparation, and traditionally is topped with a tomato-based sauce, much like a pasta sauce. This is very popular in Italy, and is often served as a “starch” instead of potatoes.

Corn has been milled into meal for many years, and is also a staple ingredient in many Mexican foods such as tortillas and cornbreads.

Cornmeal should be stored in a cool, dry place with a tight-fitting lid to prevent moisture and insects from contaminating it.

“Polenta parties” are very trendy, and offer a unique dining experience. The host prepares a large batch of polenta, and pours it hot onto a slab at a dinner table surrounded by the hungry guests.

An assortment of sauces, vegetables, and an array of grilled meat pieces is also supplied. It provides an extraordinary ambience for conversation, as people graze on their polenta-dipped morsels and sip on wine.

Dear Chef Dez:

At a restaurant I have seen polenta cut into squares and grilled or fried. Every time I have tried this at home, the polenta never stays together and always softens to the point of losing its shape. What am I doing wrong?

Rita M., Pitt Meadows

Dear Rita,

Apart from trying a different recipe, I can suggest the following: your polenta contains too much liquid, it has not set properly, or your grill or oil is not hot enough.

During the initial cooking process the cornmeal mixture needs to be cooked long enough to evaporate additional moisture. That will depend on your ratio of liquids-to-cornmeal in your recipe.

It should be very thick when pressing it into a pan to cool.

After doing so, make sure that it sets in the refrigerator for at least 12 hours, to ensure that it has set up properly. Do not remove from the fridge and cut until just before grilling or frying the pieces.

Preheating of the grill or oil to a high temperature is vital to ensure proper caramelization and browning of the surface without overcooking the polenta.

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