We like to use Virginia’s Bloody Butcher heirloom corn for this polenta recipe. The dark reddish color makes a striking plate presentation, which is one reason professional chefs prize this heirloom corn.
Look for Bloody Butcher grits (coarse grind) and cornmeal (finer grind). We found ours at Woodson’s Mill, which specializes in milling local and heirloom grains. Anson Mills in Charleston also carries heirloom varieties. You can use the cornmeal to make either cornbread or polenta.
Italian polenta can be made one of two ways: Firm polenta is poured onto a sheet and cooled, then cut into shapes and pan fried to create a crispy outer coating. Soft polenta has the consistency of grits, or porridge, and can be used interchangably with grits in recipes.
To make polenta, you must cook a bit by feel. Cornmeal responds differently depending on factors like the moisture levels of the corn (those change depending on the type of corn and how long ago the cornmeal was ground). Humidity and cooking temperatures also affect texture.
Fortunately, there is a wide margin for error. Take your time and taste it as you go. Add more liquid and cook it longer if the polenta is still gritty at the end. Polenta can be made ahead and reheated.
This polenta recipe has options for both soft and firm versions. Although we prefer Bloody Butcher corn when we can find it, you can make polenta with any cornmeal. This serves 4-6 people.
1 cup cornmeal
5 cups chicken stock or water for soft polenta
4 cups chicken stock or water for firm polenta
1 teaspoon salt
1/2 cup Parmesan cheese for soft polenta
Flour for dusting firm polenta
Bring the liquid to a boil, add salt. Turn heat down to low – below simmer.
While stirring with a whisk, slowly sprinkle in the cornmeal. Whisk it to break up any lumps. And now the fun begins!
Switch to a wooden spoon and stir the polenta frequently until it thickens and is no longer gritty. This takes roughly 45 minutes.
Making polenta is like making risotto, the grains must slowly absorb the moisture. The polenta will start to thicken after a few minutes, so it will look promising, but if you taste it you’ll find the insides are still gritty.
Cook patiently until the polenta is soft. For the firm polenta recipe the spoon should stand up in the mixture. For the soft polenta recipe the consistency should be more like a pudding. The soft polenta recipe can be made ahead to this point and then reheated (add a bit more liquid if necessary). Stir in the Parmesan cheese. Taste and adjust seasoning if necessary. Serve warm.
For the firm polenta recipe, butter a rimmed cookie sheet or jellyroll pan. Pour polenta into the pan and let it cool (can be refrigerated). When completely cooled, cut into squares or biscuit-sized circles.
Dust the polenta shapes with flour and pan fry over high heat until both sides are slightly browned.
Finish with a sprinkling of salt and serve hot. Top with a saucy main course that can be sopped up by the polenta.