A friend of mine once came up to me at a potluck and exclaimed, “I HATE polenta! But I LOVE it now! Your's was so gooooood!!” That’s because I never make it basic: I never use plain water; I always add aromatic ingredients, and I honestly can’t remember ever making it without some kind of cheese. Once you know how to make a basic polenta, you really can do so much more with it. It becomes its own main dish.
Here’s an impromptu fall polenta dish I created this weekend after buying a bag of hot roasted chilis at the Boise Farmers Market. Kimbal mentioned polenta and that was it. We went straight home after getting pumpkins and I started cooking.
Note... Because of the charred roasted chilis, this polenta isn't as bright yellow as most polenta dishes. Personally, I like it that way because I love anything browned, burnt, fried or toasted. (Just me.)
HERE'S WHAT I DID IN 10 STEPS
1. Cooked the aromatics
We bought fresh leeks at the market too so I definitely wanted to use those! I thinly sliced a few small stalks and sauteed them in a cast iron skillet for several minutes in olive oil. (Any aromatic will work here: shallots, red onion, sweet onion, garlic.)
2. Added some hot roasted chilis
I peeled the charred skins from 3 roasted (spicy hot!) chilis with my fingers. (Don't run them under water to remove the charred skins or you’ll lose so much of the precious succulent oils! You want those because they add unctuous flavor to whatever dish you’re making.) Then I thinly sliced them into the leeks.
3. A touch of salt and cumin
I was careful with salting at this point because I knew I’d be using stock that was pre-salted, and cheese, which—depending on the variety—can sometimes be salty or bring out the taste of saltiness in other foods.
4. Added the polenta and brown it a little
I put about a cup of dried polenta into the sauteed leeks and chilis, without adding the stock yet. I just browned the bits a little for a few minutes over medium-high heat to give them a little more flavor. (Why not? Some like everything burnt.)
5. Poured in the stock
A general rule of thumb is 3:1 liquid to dried polenta. (Every polenta variety will require slightly varying amounts of liquid, depending upon how course it’s ground. But you can generally start at 3:1. Sometimes you may need to up it to a 4:1 ratio) I slowly poured in about 2 1/2 cups of chicken stock while stirring, then turned down the heat to medium-low. I made sure to stir frequently so the polenta didn’t clump up as it cooked. I cooked it this way over med-low, stirring frequently, for about 30 minutes. I added small amounts of stock as it cooked, totalling a little more than 3 cups in the end.
6. Soft or hard? Time to choose
Polenta can be served soft like grits, or hard and sliceable. I wanted it hard so I could slice it and plate it. If you want it sliceable, you don't need to do much else. I added a little salted butter for flavor and creaminess, but you can also add a little milk or cream here too—not too much if you want it to keep its form after setting. A quarter cup will be fine.
If you want your polenta soft, you can add a little more stock or milk or cream—½ cup, more or less, depending on how soft you want it. If the polenta is soft and creamy and it’s the consistency you want, it’s done cooking.
7. Added queso fresco, salt and flavors
Next I sprinkled in a handful of queso fresco, which is crumbly Mexican cheese. (If you don’t have that, you can use a mild feta or some dry curd cottage cheese. If you don’t have that, use a mild parmesan. If you don’t have that, than heck! Just throw in some Monterrey Jack!) Finally I took the liberty to add salt. It just needed a little. (What's great is that you can taste the polenta before it sets. Good for confidence, especially when you're just winging a recipe, like this one.) I also stirred in some fresh cilantro at this point.
8. Let sit to firm it up
Since I wanted my polenta hard’ish, it needed to sit awhile to set. I wanted mine straight out of the cast iron skillet so I just pulled it off the stove and let it sit 15-20 minutes. (If you want it soft you don't need to let it sit before going to the next step.
9. Turned on the broiler
After letting the polenta sit a spell, I turned on the broiler. I sprinkled more queso fresco on top, as well as more thin slices of the hot chilis. A drizzle of olive oil. Then I popped it under the broiler for a few minutes to brown the top and melt the cheese a touch.
10. Garnished and ate it!
I sprinkled more cilantro on top for color. More drizzled olive oil. A sprinkling of sea salt.
Done and yum!
1-2 small leeks or 1 small onion
Olive oil or butter, or a combo
2-3 roasted chili peppers (hot or mild)
Salt and cumin, to taste
1 cup dried polenta
3-4 cups chicken stock or water
Cream or milk, optional
Queso fresco, or mild feta
Fresh cilantro, for garnish