The yellow particles of polenta may not look that appetising, but the humble grain offers endless possibilities for the home cook.
Polenta is made from coarse, medium or fine ground cornmeal. It is cheap and easy to prepare, although by itself, I find it tastes a bit bland. That is why it is ideal for soaking up other flavours.
Cooked as a soft porridge, polenta can be a good accompaniment to chicken, fish or meat, and substitute for rice. To make a delicious soft and creamy side dish, boil the polenta briefly in water or stock, season as desired, then enrich with a knob of butter and grated cheese such as parmesan.
If you allow that porridge to set firm, the result can become a handy pre-cooked base for savoury snacks.
One of my favourite ways is to pour the creamy mixture into a greased flat pan and allow it to set in the refrigerator for several hours. It can then be cut into squares and grilled or fried in a pan until the outside is crispy. The result makes for an excellent base for toppings such as sauteed mushrooms or onions and red peppers.
Alternatively, the cooked and cooled polenta can be cut into chip-sized sticks, dusted with seasoned flour and deep-or shallow-fried as an alternative to potato fries.
Polenta also adds a bit of crunch to flour coatings for fried chicken or fish. Another alternative is to substitute polenta for up to a third of the flour in your favourite scone recipe for an interesting variation in taste and a slightly crunchier texture.
Polenta has long been an Italian staple, originating as a peasant food from northern Italy.
Just like the polenta that fed the peasants of Italy, cornmeal sustained the early settlers in the United States and, under another name, became a well-known food item, especially in the southern states. Hominy grits, or cornmeal mush, became a breakfast and side-dish staple in rural areas after early settlers learnt from native Americans how to grind corn kernels with the hulls removed.
Grits and polenta use different types of corn and there are subtle differences in texture and flavour, but either will do in most recipes.
Polenta grains can also be a crunchy addition to baked cakes and desserts. I have been experimenting with it in some of my favourite cake recipes.
One example is a blueberry crumb cake - today's recipe - in which the polenta adds extra texture in the cake to complement the crumble topping.
Most berries such as raspberries or blackberries, or a mixture, will also work, though I generally prefer to use blueberries as they are less likely to bleed into the cake.
BLUEBERRY CRUMB CAKE
- 80g polenta
- 150g butter
- 150g caster sugar
- 2 large eggs
- 220g flour sifted together with 2 tsp baking powder
- 80ml milk
- 3 Tbs lemon juice
- 2 Tbs finely grated lemon rind
- 200g sour cream
- 200g blueberries
- 130g plain flour
- 80g brown sugar
- 100g cold butter chopped
- Pre-heat the oven to 180 deg C.
- Lightly grease the bottom and sides of a round 21cm spring form pan with butter and line the base with non-stick baking paper. Sprinkle about 2 tsp of polenta onto the base and sides, which will give the exterior of the cake an added crunch.
- To make the crumble topping, put all the ingredients in a food processor and process until the mixture resembles breadcrumbs. To make without a processor, place all the ingredients in a large bowl and rub the mixture together until it resembles breadcrumbs. Set aside topping.
- Beat the butter and sugar together in a large bowl until it is light and creamy. Add the eggs one at a time while continuing to beat. If the mixture starts to curdle, add a couple of tablespoons of flour.
- Add the rest of the sifted flour and baking powder, polenta and milk. Beat until well combined.
- Using a wooden spoon, stir in the lemon juice and rind, then gently stir in the sour cream.
- Spread at least half of the mixture into the prepared tin, then sprinkle the blueberries on top. Spread the rest of the cake mixture over the blueberries, then sprinkle the prepared crumble topping over the top.
- Bake in the pre-heated oven for about 50 minutes or until a skewer inserted into the mixture comes out clean . Check towards the end of the cooking time that the crumble topping is not getting overly brown. If it is, lightly cover with a bit of foil for the remaining minutes.
- Serve with ice cream or yogurt.