On the sixteenth day of Martin & Sylvia's Audio Advent Calendar, in the story “Forest Treasures”, Martin and Sylvia wake up late after enjoying Momma's singing at the holiday concert the night before. When they finally make it downstairs, Daddy has two bowls of polenta “with little pools of butter” ready for them, and they plan their day as they enjoy the delicious warmth. But the advent magic has a slightly different plan, and soon Sylvia finds a card that sends them on a hunt through their backyard and beyond, looking for forest treasures.
A warm bowl of polenta—for breakfast, lunch, or dinner—is the coziest thing on a cold day. It's hearty and thick and even it's golden color gently whispers, “I'm warm!”
It is a bit terrifying to wade into the fray of talking about how to cook it, though, because—as with many traditional foods—there are a lot of people who learned to make it “the right way” at their grandmother's knee. I would never try to contradict that, of course, so I'll simply tell you that this is what works for me.
First, I use a ratio of about 1 part polenta to 5 cups water. It takes a bit longer to cook down this way, but it ensures that all the little bits of corn meal are tender at the end.
In a similar vein, I like to use the widest pan I have that will still hold the necessary amount of liquid. For me, that's a wide, high-sided skillet, but a dutch oven would work, too. The key is the extra surface area, which helps the polenta cook down just a little faster.
Next, I stir my polenta frequently, but not constantly. You can't leave the kitchen, but you can leave the stove. If you're a knitter or sewer, I find it's enjoyable to have a small project handy to work on simultaneously. Stir, knit a row, stir, knit a row. Stir, sew a button, stir, sew a button. It's a soothing rhythm.
Lastly, while Martin and Sylvia's polenta with plain butter is yummy, I like to bring on the toppings. For myself, I like a handful of kale, a fried egg, and several generous squirts of hot sauce. For my family, they like to go sweet—a handful of dried fruit, some chopped nuts, a drizzle of maple syrup. By making my polenta with water (versus milk or chicken stock) it is neutral enough to go either way.
Polenta (With Sweet or Savory Toppings)
2 cups polenta
10 cups water
1/4 cup cream
1 tablespoon butter
salt, to taste
For sweet toppings:
handful of dried cherries
handful of chopped pistachios
a drizzle of maple syrup
For savory toppings:
handful of chopped kale of other hearty greens
In a large, high-sided skillet (or whatever pot you have that will hold the required amount of liquid), mix the polenta and water.
Place the pan over medium heat and stay nearby, stirring frequently and adjusting the temperature as needed—lower if the polenta begins to spurt and pop like an ancient tar pit, higher if there are no bubbles at all.
Continue in this manner until the polenta is done to your liking, which should take something close to 45 minutes. Turn off the heat, then stir in the cream, butter, and salt.
If you have polenta leftover, spoon it into a loaf pan, cover, and chill in the refrigerator. When you're ready to eat it, quickly invert the loaf pan over a cutting board. You can reconstitute this “polenta loaf” by mashing it together with milk and warming it up, or you can simply chop off thick slices and fry or bake them in that form.
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About the Author
The Sparkle Kitchen Series is created by Meryl Carver-Allmond.
Meryl lives in a hundred-year-old house near the prairie with her sweet husband, two preschoolers, one puppy, one gecko, and about ten chickens. While she's been writing since she could pick up a pen, in recent years she's discovered the joy of photography, too. She feels lucky to be able to combine those skills, along with a third passion — showing people that cooking for themselves can be healthy and fun — in her Sparkle Kitchen posts.