Polenta is a fantastic gluten-free staple to have in your pantry. Not only is it incredibly versatile, it is also inexpensive, and can easily be adapted for use in virtually any sweet or savory dish, from breakfast porridge to mushroom ragu. A common everyday dish in Italian cuisine, humble polenta has made its way onto fancy restaurant menus in the United States. At its heart, however, it is simply a combination of ground grains of corn lightly boiled with water or broth and often mixed with butter or parmesan cheese for extra creaminess. Although not very nutrient-dense on its own, when added to vegetable-heavy dishes, whole grain polenta becomes a very nutritious choice. Read on for more reasons to add polenta to your next shopping list.
Polenta is convenient for several reasons. Because it is a dry packaged good, it is available year-round, and can be found at your local grocery store regardless of the season. Buying large amounts of polenta when it is on sale can be convenient, because it stores easily for a long period of time in your pantry. Kept in a dry and cool environment, in a tightly sealed container, polenta grains will stay fresh for one year. If you keep it in an airtight, moisture-proof container in the freezer, it can be stored for several years. This guarantees that you will always have some polenta on hand for anytime the taste arises.
Cooking polenta can take up to 45 minutes on the stovetop, but most of that time is hands-off. Stirring polenta for one whole minute every 10 minutes is adequate to produce a creamy, lump-free texture. Polenta can also be made in the microwave and even in the slow cooker, for a totally hands-off approach. If you are really low on time, polenta can be purchased pre-made in tubes at the grocery store. Tubes of polenta come seasoned and unseasoned, and do not need to be refrigerated until opened. Polenta tubes are not quite as versatile as homemade polenta, but certainly fit the bill when you are looking for a quick gluten-free grain to complement your meal.
Polenta is an inexpensive grain to buy, especially when purchased in the uncooked form. Also consider that a little goes a long way! One cup of uncooked polenta expands to about four cups cooked. Although polenta is available in the bulk section of many grocery stores, avoid buying it (and anything else) in bulk to prevent the risk of gluten cross-contamination with other products.
Polenta is a blank canvas of flavor possibilities, as it easily takes on the flavors of other ingredients and seasonings. Adding fresh or dried herbs, spices and other seasonings to polenta can really bring the dish to life, as polenta on its own is fairly mild in taste. Likewise, adding butter or cheese at the end of cooking increases creaminess and richness of flavor. Cooked vegetables or meats can also be stirred in at the end of cooking to increase the nutrient content and add variation in color and texture. Alternately, polenta works well as a base grain over which vegetables and sauces can be poured, and it also acts well as a stand-in for pasta; it tastes delicious with a classic tomato-based pasta sauce poured on top.
There is a world of options for how to prepare polenta. It can be made extra creamy (by adding extra water or broth during cooking) and served as-is, or it can be left to set and then baked or pan-fried to become a finger food. It can be served as part of the main dish or as a great side dish. Different consistencies of milled corn (e.g. coarse or fine) will provide you with different textures of polenta. The finer the grain, the smoother the polenta and the shorter the cooking time.
Polenta firms up quickly after being cooked, and can be cut into squares or strips and then baked, grilled, or pan-fried. Pouring freshly-cooked polenta into a sheet pan with at least a one inch lip all around and letting it set in place will provide you with a great “crust” for gluten-free pizza. Simply bake the crust in a 375° oven for 5 minutes, remove it from the oven and layer it with traditional pizza toppings (marinara sauce, mozzarella cheese, spinach, and gluten-free pepperoni, for example) and bake again at the same temperature until the cheese has completely melted, up to 15 minutes.
The grain used to make polenta is just a type of cornmeal, so it can be used in place of cornmeal in many recipes. It is best used in recipes that will be cooked and which contain other gluten-free flours (not just cornmeal) to ensure the end product still has the correct texture. Consider using it in cornbread, pancakes, or muffins, and look forward to the extra moistness that polenta provides! Polenta can also be used as a coating for meat and fish. Dipping a piece of chicken into a whisked egg, then into a bowl containing uncooked polenta grain mixed with salt and pepper, then pan-frying or baking the chicken is a great way to get a healthier and gluten-free version of “fried” chicken.
Tubed polenta has many possibilities, as well. It can be sliced and used in place of pasta in gluten-free lasagna or casseroles, fried, topped with cheese and tomatoes and grilled, or used to dip into homemade sauces. Remember to refrigerate tubed polenta after opening it.
While other whole grains may be more nutrient-dense, polenta does provide some nutritional benefits. A half cup of cooked polenta provides 15 grams of carbohydrates and 1 gram of dietary fiber, 6% of your daily needs for vitamin A, 12% of your daily needs for vitamin C, 2% of your daily needs for iron, only 70 calories, and no cholesterol or fat if prepared with water. Serving polenta with vegetables and lean protein only increases the nutrient value, and makes for a very balanced meal complete with carbohydrates, protein and fat.
Look for polenta or cornmeal that has been stone-ground versus degerminated. Stone-ground polenta is considered a whole grain; it is less processed and more nutrients are retained than in more refined corn. If you are interested in adding even more nutrients to polenta, consider trying taragna polenta, which is polenta grain mixed with buckwheat flour. This can be made at home by adding a half cup each of polenta grain and buckwheat flour to four cups of boiling water, mixing them together well, then cooking them on a low simmer, stirring occasionally, for about an hour.
Here are some recipes to get you started, but don’t stop there! Polenta is a fun ingredient that can be prepared in many exciting ways to suit your palate. Try it in place of pasta or rice in your favorite recipes, and see where the possibilities lead you.
4 cups water or gluten-free vegetable or meat broth
½ teaspoon salt if not using broth
1 cup uncooked polenta grain
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese (optional)
Bring salted water to a boil in a medium pan.
Slowly pour polenta grain into boiling water with one hand, whisking with the other hand, until mixed.
Turn the heat down to a simmer and continue stirring the polenta with a whisk or wooden spoon to make sure no lumps form and that it does not stick to the sides of the pan. Do this until the polenta becomes thick, and then cover the pan.
Every 10 minutes, stir for one minute intervals, making sure to scrape down the sides of the pan, until the polenta is creamy, which may take between 30 and 45 minutes.
Before serving, mix in cheese, if using. Serve immediately, and top with braised greens (see below).
1-2 tablespoons butter
1 bunch of leafy greens (chard, kale, or spinach), de-stemmed and roughly chopped
1/4 cup water
Salt and pepper to taste
Melt butter on medium-low heat in a large stovetop pan. Add greens and gently stir until they start to wilt.
Add water, cover pan and cook until the water is gone.
Add salt and pepper to taste and serve immediately, spooning a cup or so on top of the polenta.
1 recipe creamy polenta (see above)
1-2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper, to taste
Make creamy polenta, then pour into a 9”x 9” baking pan and let sit for about 30 minutes, or until set.
Preheat oven broiler to high. Turn polenta upside down onto a cutting board, and slice into desired shapes, trying to keep all pieces roughly the same size to ensure even cooking.
Cover a sheet pan with parchment paper and place the polenta onto it. Pour olive oil over the polenta, and sprinkle salt and pepper to taste.
Grill under the broiler for 3-5 minutes and serve.
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