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Learning to Relax: Polenta v. Cornmeal Mush

February 24, 2010

I have been a devoted follower of Marcella Hazan for many years.  If you are a longtime reader you may remember some of my thoughts on the Italian Goddess of Fussy.

In that post I even touched on the torture and torment that she requires for making polenta.  But really it just skimmed the surface.

For example, I left out the part where she requires that you:

Keep the water boiling at medium-high heat, and add the cornmeal in a very thin stream, letting a fistful of it run through nearly closed fingers. You should be able to see the individual grains spilling into the pot.  The entire time you are adding the cornmeal, stir it with a whisk, and make sure the water is always boiling.

Being a faithful student, I have gone through that operation more times than I care to recount. Do you want to know how it works out?  Well, the recipe calls for almost 2 cups of “coarse-grained imported Italian yellow cornmeal.”  After dozens of fistfuls, cornmeal is all over the stove, my pouring hand is as red as a steamed lobster, and my stirring arm is already tired before the serious stirring has even begun.

Here’s the thing.

Technique is all fine and good.  But if the process is so onerous that it prevents you from cooking a delicious and healthful meal, maybe, just maybe, one can be a little less fussy for a weeknight dinner.

The watershed moment occurred when I read somewhere about incorporating “cornmeal mush” into some baked casserole.  The details elude me at the moment, but it was delightfully unfussy: one cup of cornmeal to four cups of liquid.  Simmer until it’s done.

[Addendum posted 4/15/11 – I neglected to mention the scant 1/2T of salt added to the liquid.]

It didn’t take me long to realize that I could take a few elements from Marcella’s technique and apply it to the mush and end up with a satisfactory compromise.  After all, the proportions in the two recipes were almost identical.

Instead of buying the relatively expensive imported Italian polenta, I get organic cornmeal at the Honest Weight Food Co-op.  Corn is one of the foods I’m committed to buying organic these days, primarily because I’m avoiding GMOs and almost all conventional corn is genetically modified.

Then my polenta will have to suffer by being poured in slowly from a bowl while I whisk it into the boiling water.  The unfussy have no interest in seeing individual grains of corn meal.

In the past, I felt there was some kind of magic in Marcella’s cooking times.  So when she said to stir for one full minute, I set an egg timer and I stirred for that full minute.  When she said to stir every ten minutes, I set a kitchen timer and I stirred every ten minutes, and kept a little pad with a tally of how many ten-minute increments had passed.

I am very good with following instructions.

My variation of cornmeal mush does not require such attentions.  Instead I’ll give the pot a good stir when I get around to it.  In the meantime it is perfectly fine simmering quietly covered on the corner of the stove.

Eventually it’s done.  Still takes about 45 minutes.  All of the steps are pretty much the same.  But I find myself not worrying about it.  And that makes me want to cook it more often.  Which is great, because it’s delicious, warming and satisfying.  Three things that are critical for winter cooking.

Look at me, cutting loose.

11 Comments leave one →
  1. Mr. Sunshine permalink
    February 24, 2010 11:21 am

    How do you stand on the wet vs. drier polenta issue? Mario Batali always insists it should be almost soupy, but I prefer Lydia Bastianich’s tighter version. I like to pour it out on a wooden board and slice big pieces. You? And how about grits? Now those I like soupy, preferably with cheese or shrimp. You?

  2. Ellen Whitby permalink
    February 24, 2010 12:48 pm

    It’s okay to be fussy sometimes and not fussy at other times. You have to pick your battles, right?

    Either way, you are still the Profusser.

  3. February 24, 2010 5:01 pm

    Bittman took this up recently, too:


  4. February 24, 2010 8:12 pm

    We love polenta here. I’m a fan of Bob’s Red Mill medium grind though I’ve never considered it a pain to make. Probably because long ago I thought bullshit to myself when I read about the tediously slow pouring in of the grains. I pour slowly enough while whisking but certainly not slow enough to see individual grains.

    And I will admit to keeping some instant polenta on hand because my kids like it for breakfast. We eat it like most people eat oatmeal, with a pat of butter, brown sugar and a bit of half and half. It’s also fabulous with some quick caramelized bananas on top.

    I prefer it soft, like whipped mashed potatoes. I will only make it firm if I am going to chill it and slice it for different recipes. Like spinach polenta gratin.

  5. February 24, 2010 11:46 pm

    I, too, am a fan and longtime follower of Marcella, but I abandoned her fussy polenta many years ago. The best thing about polenta is that it’s as versatile as rice, but it’s also something different. I love using it as a base for braised short ribs or other thick stew. As for Mr. Sunshine’s question regarding firm vs. soft polenta, it’s really about how you’re using it IMHO. I love to make a firm polenta, slice it into thick rounds or squares and grill them. I then top that with micro-greens or arugula and some crispy, sauteed mushrooms for an easy but goo “wow factor” appetizer/salad.

  6. Annie permalink
    February 24, 2010 11:59 pm

    Fistfuls of laughter on my end!

  7. Tonia permalink
    February 25, 2010 1:22 am

    “Cornmeal Mush,” it is what it is. I’ve been eating this porridge-style since… Betty Crocker 1970 something… topped with butter, milk, and sugar. Simple, yet yummy. Technique is overrated. I still reach back for that classic orange Betty more times than any of my fancy pants cookbooks. Yes. I said it.

  8. February 26, 2010 10:35 pm

    Microwave. Seriously. And this is coming from someone who is resistant to microwave cookery.

  9. karenano permalink
    April 30, 2010 8:07 pm

    Do you know if the cornmeal from Italy has a higher protein content? I’m thinking that the polenta my ancesters ate in Northern Italy was more nourishing. Our modern corn has had the protein bred out of it in favor of starches. As a gardener and a foodie, I need to know what kind of corn they used say 100 years ago.

    Just made my vegetarian son a gorgeous polenta lasagna. Leftover polenta sliced 1/4 inch, layered with Fontina and sauteed mushrooms, topped with beautiful roasted veggies and surrounded with homemade marinara. Yum!


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