Late to the party

… … …the polenta party, that is. When you’ve been cooking the household meals for more than forty years there’s not a great deal in the way of new ingredients to come across. You may remember that my recent discovery of sumac moved from excited anticipation to vague disappointment once I’d cooked with it. Now say hello to polenta!

A little while ago my Daughter and I were in Telford and we went for a coffee. Despite our determined good intentions we succumbed to a piece of polenta and orange cake. I remembered first eating this in Madeira a couple of years ago. Until then I’d only ever eaten polenta in its set form as polenta chips (sprinkled with Parmesan – different but very nice). The cake was amazing, both in Madeira and Telford and I wanted to make some.

There are numerous recipes on the Internet and I decided to create my own version from an amalgamation of several. I took me a while to get around to it but eventually the day dawned. The only ingredient I didn’t have was the essential one – polenta.

In Tesco I couldn’t find it so asked a member of staff who told me that they had stopped selling the dried version and only had the ready made blocks (perfect for the aforementioned chips but no good for my needs). Nearby stood a suited man with a clipboard.
“Come with me,” he said, smiling.
Memories of my mother’s warnings to never ‘go off’ with strange men, even though they might seem perfectly nice, flitted through my mind but I figured that as a mature woman of 61 in the middle of Tesco on a Monday afternoon it was probably worth taking the risk. I followed Mr Clipboard into the World Foods section. He spoke again.
“You’ll be glad we’ve stopped selling the stuff you wanted,” he told me.
I couldn’t quite work that out until he, reached onto the shelf and took off a large bag. Judge for yourself:

Ground polenta (no longer) in the grocery aisle: £1.75 for 375g.
Ground cornmeal (i.e. polenta) in the World Foods aisle: £1.99 for 1.5kg.

Maths was never my strongest subject but even I could work out that 24p extra for four times as much was a bargain.The only problem was how I might use the remaining 1.4kg after adding 100g to my cake mixture!  A little research was called for. Described as ‘one of the best flavour absorbers on the shelf’, it seems that polenta is an incredibly versatile ingredient and is available both coarse ground and fine-milled and in traditional (long-cook) or quick-cook varieties. The pack I bought is fine-milled and is apparently best for making cakes and biscuits. The idea of biscuits appeals. I’ve found recipes for orange ones, lemon ones, biscotti (I love biscotti but it’s a devil on the teeth!) and some fab-looking little squishy polenta cookies. I’ll update you as and when.

There are also suggestions for using the coarser polenta as a substitute for mashed potato, cous cous or pasta, as a pizza base or as a crunchy coating for chicken or fish. If left to set (like the ready made variety), it can be grilled, fried or baked to make a gluten-free bread (and made into those chips, of course).

The cake, by the way, plain looking though it is, is light, ultra moist and very, very yummy! Polenta makes for an interesting texture. Unfortunately this recipe is particularly high in sugar so it won’t be on the menu very often, but that does leave room for a bit of creativity and I do like to experiment.

So, am I alone here in not having discovered the many diverse uses of polenta?  Perhaps you all use it regularly and are wondering why I would even bother to write about it! If that’s the case, do tell me what you do with it.

9 thoughts on “Late to the party

  1. Well, I am going to try commenting, again! Hopefully, it goes through, this time. I wanted to say that I know it as corn meal, and it is used here for corn bread, corn bread muffins, tamales, grits (the southern version of the cornmeal mush mentioned in another comment), etc. Hope this comment goes through!

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  2. I grew up with it in its other identity–corn meal mush. I.e. breakfast porridge. Very nice with milk and sugar, or fresh fruit and milk, or (very traditionally) maple syrup. I like it plain too. I lived on it for lunch in college, made on a hotplate in the maid’s room, in 1959. The maid came in one day while I was cooking it and said “ah, polenta! News to me.
    It works well with the coarse or medium grind, the fine might be a bit tricky to cook. It is likely to lump unless you mix the grain with cold water, add the slurry to the boiling water. Or you can just mix it in cold water and heat the whole mess on low heat, stirring frequently. Leftover, put it in a container where it can be turned out and sliced, saute in butter (best) or whatever fat suits you. Till it’s brown; it browns faster if you sprinkle with powdered sugar (my aunt did, I don’t). Serve as a dinner starch or with syrup for breakfast/brunch.

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    1. Goodness….you are a polenta expert! I’m guessing you didn’t grow up in the UK? Or maybe very one here was eating cornmeal and I just didn’t know! Thanks for the advice re cooking. I may have to buy a bag of coarse ground too. I’m going to make biscuits this weekend, and perhaps a lemon version of the cake. I shall report in due course on my further experimentation.

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  3. We make polenta mash to go with sausages as an alternative to mashed potato. I’ve no idea if it’s healthier for you but it’s definitely tasty with some onion gravy!

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  4. It’s often surprising how much cheaper certain foods can be in the world foods aisle. I haven’t used Polenta in ages. Lily, like many people, doesn’t like the texture. I might try using it in a cake though. X

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  5. I have eaten polenta cake, a lemon cake, and it was delicious. I have also had polenta on top of a casserole many years ago, little rounds similar to scones/dumplings, and they were also tasty, but not much different from scones or what might be called cobblers on top of a casserole, but I think I’d have a go at a polenta cake.
    By the way, Eloise, after the joy of having my computer back yesterday, the same fault happened during the evening, so I can’t access my own blog, or send or receive emails. This is so frustrating, I will need to contact my computer man again today. I thought we had this nailed, but apparently not.
    Margaret P
    http://www.margaretpowling.com

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