Polenta recipes | Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2024)

Crusty old cooks like mesometimes get setin our ways, endlessly defaulting toold favourites – at least when we're off duty. Then, as if in some kitchen-based-midlife crisis, we suddenly go nuts for something we haven't cooked for ages. I'm having one ofthose jags right now, with polenta. In fact, I've been on a bitofa polenta bender.

I've enjoyed it since I learned tocook at the River Cafe almost aquarter of a century ago. (I know. Thank you. You're too kind.) But Ioften seem to forget how much I like it. So I've made a point of reminding myself – and enjoyed every minute of it. Of course, I love it in its purest form, well seasoned with a dab of butter and a melting cloud of parmesan. But it's hugely versatile and – a bonus – cheap. Traditionally, polenta is a winter food, but it makes good summer eating, too, as a pillowy base for simply cooked, emerald green vegetables straight from the garden. It also makes a nifty, crispy crust for fish. You can even stick slices of cooked set polenta on the barbecue. So this week, I'm sharing some of my favourite creamy, crunchy, corny treats with you.

What pasta is to the south, polenta is to the north of Italy. But the ground maize porridge has along history. It was introduced to Italy from America, via Spain, in the mid-17th century, but polenta-type dishes were being made centuries before that. The earliest forms were made from spelt and probably barley, and by the middle ages chestnuts, buckwheat, millet and even acorns were ground up into savoury porridge, too.

What was once rib-sticking, hunger-defying food of the poor isthese days the object of some connoisseurship – coarse or fine, from rich, golden yellow to the elegant white polenta of the Veneto, inits purest form or mixed with buckwheat, as they do in Lombardy.

While these days polenta often appears on menus, I don't think I'm the only one who's struggling to get round to cooking it at home. Perhaps all that stirring puts us off, though we clearly don't feel the same about risotto. It's traditionally made in apaiolo, a wide, round-bottomed, copper pan, but any big pan will do – just make sure it has a heavy bottom for good heat distribution. You'll also need a long wooden spoon – once it gets going, polenta bubbles volcanically and you don't want it splashing and sticking on to your hands.

For four people, allow 1.8 litres of water to 300g of polenta. Bring the water to a boil, throw in a teaspoon of salt and remove from the heat. Put the polenta into a jug and pour into the water in a thin, steady stream, whisking all the time to ensure there are no lumps. Return the pan to the heat, bring it gently to a boil and stir with your long spoon for 10 minutes. Then give it a good, firm stir once aminute or so for 40 minutes. Or you could try making it in the oven – it's quite a neat trick. After the first 10 minutes of stirring, transfer the polenta to a well-buttered dish, cover with buttered greaseproof paper and a tight layer of foil, and bake at 180C/350F/gas mark 4 for an hour.

Alternatively, sod the purists and save your arm. There is no shame in instant polenta. It's part-cooked, so all you need do is toss it into the pan of boiling water and stir for about five minutes. It's really very good and only the snobbiest of polenta- o-philes would turn up their noses at it. On holiday in the Alps a couple of years ago, I even found in a local deli a ready-made polenta in the form of a sort of sliceable giant sausage. It was delicious cut into thick slices, fried until crisp and served with lots of grated parmesan.

So now you've got your technique down, what are you going to do with your polenta? Like pasta, it's a great carrier of flavours. Purists may dress it only with butter and cheese – and if you've never tried that simple approach, you should, it's very special – but you can load it up with a variety of cheeses, herbs, garlic, chilli. I also like to think of wet, soft polenta as a great alternative to mash – try it with meaty ragùs, sausages, tomatoey sauces, mushroom dishes and fish stews. You can even layer it with meats, cheese and béchamel sauce in a tasty pasticciata, which you bake like lasagne. Or spread it in a pan, let it cool and firm up, then slice it and grill or fry (see today's recipe for wedges) to serve with saucy dishes or as a base for bruschette.

Polenta and asparagus tart

Polenta makes a good crust for a spring or summer tart. You can, of course, make this from scratch, but you can also make it from any leftover cooked polenta. To make this, or the next two dishes, vegetarian, use another mature hard cheese instead of the parmesan. Serves six.

1 tsp olive oil
300g fine or instant polenta
80g finely grated parmesan
4 tbsp finely chopped chives
300g thin asparagus, trimmed
3 eggs, beaten
240ml double cream
1 tsp Dijon mustard
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
100g gruyère, grated

Heat the oven to 190C/375F/gas mark 5. Take a 25cm tart tin with aremovable base and grease witholive oil.

Either cook the polenta as described above or, if using instant, follow the instructions on the packet. Stir in the cheese and stir for five minutes more. Stir in the chives and set aside to cool for about 10 minutes. Spoon the polenta into the tart tin. Spread it evenly over the bottom and up the sides to athickness of about 4mm (keep back atablespoon or two, to mend any cracks that appear after cooking). Bake until dry and crisp around the edges, about 30 minutes. If there are any cracks in the tart shell, fill with the reserved polenta.

For the filling, lightly steam the asparagus for three minutes and lay in the polenta case. Whisk the eggs, cream and mustard, and season well. Pour over asparagus, sprinkle on the cheese and bake for 35-40 minutes, until golden brown and just set.

Creamy polenta with peas and broad beans

A simple and delicious way to serve the sweetest, most tender spring veg. Add a handful of pea shoots, if you have them. Serves four as a starter.

450ml milk
Salt and freshly ground pepper
170g coarse or instant polenta
40g finely grated parmesan
40g butter, plus an extra knob
2 small shallots, finely diced
200g petit* pois or peas (pickedweight)
200g broad beans (picked weight)
1 small handful mint leaves, finelychopped

Pour 450ml water into a pan with the milk. Bring to a simmer and add some salt. Next, cook the polenta as described in the introduction or, if using instant, follow the packet instructions. Remove from the heat. Addthe parmesan and 40g butter, stir, taste and season.

Melt the knob of butter in a small frying pan and sauté theshallots until soft. Steam or simmer the peas and broad beans until just tender. Drain and toss them with the shallots, butter and mint. Season and serve immediately, spooned over the polenta.

Polenta wedges

A posh alternative to fried bread for a cooked breakfast – particularly good with grilled, roasted or fried tomatoes, because they soak up the juices beautifully. Serves six.

40g butter, plus a little more for greasing the tin
300g coarse or instant polenta
100g finely grated parmesan
5 tbsp single or double cream
2 tbsp finely chopped thyme, parsley and/or chives
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
3 tbsp olive oil

Lightly butter a 20cm x 30cm x 1.5cm baking tin or similar.

Either cook the polenta as outlined in the introduction or, if using instant, follow the instructions on the packet. Stir in the cheese, cream, half the butter and the herbs, and season generously. Pour into the tin and let it stand for 30 minutes or so, to firm up. Turn out, then cut in half lengthways and cut into 12 triangles.

Heat the oil and remaining butter in a heavy-bottomed frying pan over a medium-high heat. Fry the polenta triangles for three minutes on each side, until golden. Alternatively, brush with olive oil and pop under ahot grill for three minutes a side.

Herby polenta pollack

Polenta makes a great crisp coating for all kinds of fish. Serves four.

4 pollack fillets
4 tbsp plain flour
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
6 tbsp fine polenta
2 tsp finely chopped thyme leaves
2 tsp finely chopped parsley leaves
Finely grated zest of 1 lemon
1 egg, lightly beaten
Olive oil or rapeseed oil, for frying

Dry the fish fillets with kitchen paper. Put three tablespoons of flourin a bowl and season. Put the rest of the flour in another bowl with the polenta, herbs, zest and some salt and pepper. Put the egg into another bowl.

Dip one of the fillets in the flour, turning it over until it is coated, then shake the excess back into the bowl. Dip into the egg and then into the polenta mixture, making sure you get a good coating.

Warm about 1cm of oil in a frying pan over a medium-high heat and fry the fish for about three minutes a side, until golden.

Polenta recipes | Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (2024)
Top Articles
Latest Posts
Article information

Author: Allyn Kozey

Last Updated:

Views: 6232

Rating: 4.2 / 5 (63 voted)

Reviews: 86% of readers found this page helpful

Author information

Name: Allyn Kozey

Birthday: 1993-12-21

Address: Suite 454 40343 Larson Union, Port Melia, TX 16164

Phone: +2456904400762

Job: Investor Administrator

Hobby: Sketching, Puzzles, Pet, Mountaineering, Skydiving, Dowsing, Sports

Introduction: My name is Allyn Kozey, I am a outstanding, colorful, adventurous, encouraging, zealous, tender, helpful person who loves writing and wants to share my knowledge and understanding with you.