Polenta is a dish of boiled yellow corn meal. There you go. Nothing fancy. You can use medium or coarse milled corn meal (any finer grind will make the dish a bit like a paste, but you might like that and that is fine too). It is inexpensive and fast to prepare.
Before the introduction of maize (aka, corn) to Europe, polenta could be made from various types of flour, such as spelt, chickpea, chestnut, millet, barley and so on.
Traditionally, it was a “peasant” food – part of the wonderful world of cucina povera. How certain good and nutritious foods could be regarded as food for the poor instead of just food is something that baffles and fascinates me. These ideas unfortunately still resonate in many cultures, much to the detriment of human and non-human animals.
I do not believe that there is a need to buy those weird little ready-made packages of polenta because if you are able to boil water, you can make the dish. Also, and friends from northern Italy please forgive me, I do not believe that you must purchase a corn flour specifically labelled polenta. Purists insist that there is a difference between polenta made from regular old corn meal and that from the corn varieties that used to be grown in Italy when it was first imported (although now those same varieties may no longer be grown in Italy, but back in the Americas from whence they first came). I believe that if you want to make a delicious polenta and you can only afford one type of corn meal, but not the other, then prepare it with the one you can afford.
This dish serves four as a main or six to eight as a side dish.
- 200g polenta/corn meal
- 6-8 sun-dried tomatoes, chopped and soaked in warm water
- 100-200 g spinach, roughly chopped
- 900-950 ml water, including the soaking water
- 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg (or a few grates of fresh nutmeg)
- 1/2 to 1 teaspoon onion powder
- pinch of bicarbonate of soda (aka baking soda)
- 1/8th teaspoon mustard powder
- a glug of olive oil (optional)
- 1 teaspoon flax meal
- nutritional yeast (optional)
- salt and pepper
Soak the chopped sun-dried tomatoes before starting the cooking process (for 15 minutes or so). Save the soaking water.
Place the corn meal and bicarbonate of soda in a large saucepan and gradually pour in all the water including the soaking water, while constantly stirring on medium heat. Keep stirring.
Lower the heat to simmer once the water and corn meal mixture starts boiling. The mixture will gradually thicken and as soon as you see it starting to thicken, mix in the sun-dried tomatoes. Keep stirring!
The mixture will continue to thicken until it absorbs all the liquid and starts to bubble. Taste it to make sure that the corn meal is no longer gritty. If you feel it is still too gritty, continue to stir and cook for a while longer. The process should take approximately 15 minutes, depending on your hob and the thickness of the corn meal itself.
Once it has finished cooking, turn off the heat. Mix in the mustard powder, onion powder, nutmeg, spinach (the heat of the corn meal will wilt it but not cook it to bits) and a glug of olive oil if you wish. Mix well. Season with salt and pepper to taste.
You have two choices now: 1) serve immediately, sprinkling flax meal on top and a bit of nutritional yeast. The consistency for this option will be porridge/risotto-like. Or 2) pour the mixture into a rectangular baking dish, as shown in the photo below, and let it cool and solidify for later baking (or frying, of course).
If you opt for the second method, as I have done, let the cooling mixture sit and rest until cool to the touch. Sprinkle the flax meal on top once it has cooled. While it is cooling, turn up the top grill element in your oven. Once the dish has cooled, place the baking dish closer to the top grill, but not so close that it will burn to a crisp and roast it for 10-15 minutes until the top is crispy and golden brown. Cut into squares and serve in a dish with an drizzle of olive oil and a sprinkle of nutritional yeast, if you wish. The polenta squares will keep well for a few days. Any leftovers are also good cold in sandwiches or to take along on a picnic (or make this expressly to be taken on a picnic!).