“Polenta—I May Be Doing it Wrong.” This was the subject line of an email Brow Beat received a couple of months ago, from a reader who wanted to know why her cornmeal porridge always “seems to turn out bland and somewhat uninteresting.” “I’ve tried a couple different preparations so far (sliced and baked, mush under stew),” the reader explained, “but I’m just not a fan.”
This is understandable. Polenta does not inspire superfandom in most people. (One prominent exception: Aziz Ansari.) That’s partly because its flavor is miles away from that of its essential ingredient: corn. Most polenta retains only a whisper of the sweet, tangy, summer-fresh deliciousness of that wonderful vegetable. The process that turns fresh corn into coarse cornmeal is, in its effects, roughly equivalent to whatever it is that turned Tom Waits’ 1973 voice into Tom Waits’ 2013 voice. On the taste buds, polenta barely registers as a corn product, whether you serve it as mush or try to enliven it with baking, frying, or grilling.
There is a solution to the blandness problem, and I’m sorry (but only a little bit sorry) to say that the solution requires a specialty ingredient: freeze-dried corn powder. If you live in New York, you can visit an outpost of Momofuku Milk Bar to buy pre-made powder; if you live elsewhere, you can order a bottle of it online. You can also make it yourself by purchasing freeze-dried corn kernels (available from both survivalist-friendly and kid-friendly brands) and pulverizing them in a food processor or coffee grinder. Freeze-dried corn powder infuses polenta with unmistakable, mouthwatering, sweet-corn flavor without affecting its soft, creamy texture one bit. (It also intensifies polenta’s yellow color, a pleasant side effect.)
Cooking polenta is a snap if you do it right. Many recipes call for bringing water and/or milk to a boil and then slowly adding your coarse cornmeal to it, whisking constantly all the while to prevent lumps from forming. This is insane. It doesn’t actually prevent lumps from forming, it gets stray cornmeal particles all over your stovetop, and it sometimes results in scalded forearms. The rational approach is to combine your cornmeal with cold water and milk in a saucepan, whisk it to diffuse the granules in the liquid, and then slowly cook it over medium heat. Yes, you have to whisk almost more or less continuously (although stepping away for 30 seconds to grate some Parmesan, for instance, won’t lead to chaos). But polenta takes only about 10 minutes in total to cook, and the moment when it suddenly sucks up all the liquid and coheres into a thick mass is one of those minor culinary miracles that’s fun to witness.
Freeze-dried corn powder may be necessary to give polenta a flavor you want in your mouth, but it still needs help, texture-wise. Unless you want your polenta to evoke hardship and asceticism, you must use milk for some of the cooking liquid and stir in some butter at the end. (Good extra-virgin olive oil works, too.) Stirring in a pile of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano is never a bad idea if you’re planning to serve your polenta as dinner with pan-fried sausages, sautéed mushrooms, roasted broccoli raab, etc. But you can also omit the cheese and serve polenta under sautéed apples or stewed berries (or simply a drizzle of maple syrup or honey) for breakfast.
Or you can eat it plain. The idea of eating normal, “bland and somewhat uninteresting” polenta without any disguise or distraction is ludicrous. But when your polenta actually tastes like corn, you might not want any disguise or distraction.
Yield: 4 servings
Time: 15 minutes
1½ cups coarse cornmeal
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons freeze-dried corn powder
Salt and black pepper
1 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter
Put the cornmeal, milk, freeze-dried corn powder, and 2½ cups water in a small pot over medium heat; season with salt and pepper. Cook, whisking more or less constantly, until the polenta has absorbed all the liquid and thickened, about 10 minutes. Turn off the heat, and stir in the Parmesan and butter. Taste and adjust the seasoning, and serve warm. (Store leftover polenta in an airtight container in the refrigerator for up to a few days.)