Quick meals with polenta

Author: Lisa Featherby
Photography: William Meppem

Legions of northern Italians can't be wrong - this versatile cornmeal makes the ideal mainstay for so many meals.

Polenta is great comfort food and its neutral flavour makes it very versatile. The traditional way of cooking it is simply with water and salt, but a good homemade stock does it plenty of favours; it's also often served enriched with plenty of butter and cheese.

You don't necessarily need to stand sentry over it while it cooks. We whisk our polenta into boiling water, then reduce the heat to very low and stir it until it starts to thicken - anywhere from five to 20 minutes - then cover it and stir occasionally until it's done.

The amount of liquid you need depends on the coarseness and kind you're using, but it's roughly a litre to 200gm of coarse polenta. The cheap instant stuff has next to no flavour, so source a good Italian stoneground polenta, especially when polenta is the star of the dish. (We like Mulino Marino, imported by Lario International.) As with wheat flour, polenta that is stone-milled contains a lot more of the oil of the grain, which shortens its shelf-life but gives it a vastly superior texture and flavour.

Lemon polenta cake
Serves 8-10
Preheat oven to 160C. Soak 110gm fine polenta in 80ml boiling water in a heatproof bowl (10 minutes). Beat 200gm softened butter with 130gm caster sugar and 1 tbsp honey in an electric mixer until pale and fluffy. Beat in 3 large eggs one at a time. Stir in 90gm self-raising flour, 60ml milk, grated rind of 1 lemon and the polenta and a pinch salt. Tip into a paper-lined 20cm cake tin, smooth top and bake until golden and a skewer withdraws clean (50-55 minutes; cover cake with foil if it colours too quickly). Cool in tin, then turn out onto a wire rack. Mix 110gm pure icing sugar with 1½ tbsp lemon juice, drizzle onto cooled cake, grate lemon rind over and scatter with chopped pistachios.

Polenta with sausage ragù
Serves 6
Sauté 80gm diced mild pancetta and ½ diced onion in a saucepan with 1 tbsp olive oil until tender (12-15 minutes). Add 600gm chopped beef sausages and brown (4-6 minutes). Add 1 tbsp each rosemary and tomato paste and stir briefly, then add 200ml red wine, 125ml chicken stock and simmer until sauce reduces and meat is cooked (5-7 minutes) Skim oil and keep warm. Cook 200gm polenta according to packet instructions, stir in 100gm grated parmesan and serve with ragù.

Fried sage and Gorgonzola polenta
Serves 6 as an appetiser
Butter a 20cm-square baking dish. Cook 200gm polenta according to packet instructions. Stir in 100gm grated parmesan, 30gm butter and 1 tbsp finely chopped sage, season to taste and pour half into the dish. Dot with 100gm Gorgonzola, pour in remaining polenta, cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight. Heat 2cm vegetable oil in a frying pan over high heat. Cut polenta into squares, ensuring Gorgonzola is in the centre of the squares, and fry until golden on both sides (2-3 minutes).

Winter greens pie with a polenta crust
Serves 6
Combine 90gm fine polenta and 200ml boiling water in a heatproof bowl and soak (10 minutes). Process 250gm self-raising flour and 150gm diced butter in a food processor until combined. Mix in 1 egg and polenta, then transfer to a piece of baking paper, place another piece of baking paper on top and roll out to a large round to cover a large pie dish and refrigerate until firm (20 minutes). Preheat oven to 180C. Cook ½ diced onion in 1 tbsp olive oil in a saucepan over medium heat until softened. Add 1 bunch chopped silverbeet and 1 grated garlic clove and stir until wilted (2 minutes). Stir in 130gm chopped preserved artichokes, ¼ cup chopped dill and finely grated rind of 1 lemon and transfer to pie dish. Scatter with 200gm feta, top with pastry and bake until golden (30 minutes).

Hot tips
+ Use a heavy-based pan for cooking polenta; even heat distribution lessens the chance of it catching.

+ Pour leftover polenta into a container and refrigerate it to set; the next day top it with your choice of cheese and bake it.

+ Make your own corn chips by rolling leftover soft polenta between two sheets of baking paper, then dry in the oven.

Here are more polenta recipes to try.

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