Making polenta only involves bringing milk to a simmer, adding polenta and continuing to stir.
You can make it with water, but milk or stock gives it a better flavor. The ratio of 3 or 4 parts liquid to 1 part polenta (yield about 3 ½ parts) sometimes makes it a little hard to judge how much polenta to make.
If you ever have an abundance of polenta left or want some extra for later, try making polenta cakes. They only take a few steps and make a great side on the fly when you are trying to figure out what’s for dinner.
Traditionally polenta is served as a fresh made side dish.
Simmer the milk, add the polenta, turn down the heat, and stir a few more minutes until the polenta is done, then finish with cheese and butter.
It can be served as a slightly flowing starch that’s a delicious addition to any plate. Always look at the instructions on your bag of polenta, but generally it is 4 parts liquid to 1 part polenta, with some instant polentas using only 3 parts liquid.
The process is simple: bring liquid to a simmer, season lightly with salt and pepper, add polenta, reduce heat to low and simmer.
The starch will expand, burst and thicken the liquid. After a few minutes, taste the thickened polenta and see if there is any crunch left. Add more liquid if it is too thick; cook longer and add more liquid if it is still crunchy; cook longer if it is too runny.
Season, as desired. Finish with cheese and butter and serve.
Polenta does not spread well once it has cooled, so it is best to put it into your dish or tray while still hot.
If you have extra polenta at the end of the meal you want to store, just heat it slightly in the microwave or over the range, until it is pliable enough to move.
Spread the polenta onto a tray or into a dish lined with parchment, wax paper or plastic wrap from ½ inch to just over an inch thick; much thicker and it will become too hard to heat all the way through without burning.
Cover the top of the polenta and refrigerate. The polenta will need to chill at least a few hours; overnight is best to be ready to sear into cakes.
It will store in the refrigerator for 4 to 5 days — up to a few months if wrapped tightly in plastic wrap and stored in the freezer. Just thaw overnight in the refrigerator before making into cakes.
LOW AND SLOW! High heat and impatience will kill your cakes. Keep heat between medium and low. Wait until the fat has melted and coated the pan (vegetable oil, olive oil, butter, lard, etc.), just a little over enough to coat the bottom, not enough to come up the sides.
Taking care not to overcrowd the pan, place the cakes with the smoothest side down first. The first sear typically comes out the best, as the pan is the hottest.
Let the cakes sit. Do not try to flip them until the brown sear has come slightly up the side of the cake. This crust is what holds the cakes together. If you try to flip too soon the cake will fall apart.
Once the crust has formed, the cake will release itself from the pan. If the cake is sticking, turn the heat down a little and wait.
Flip the cake and brown the opposite side. If the cakes are thick enough, brown the edges, too.
The cakes are ready to serve directly out of the pan.
If you are doing more than one pan, it may be best to brown all of the cakes and then briefly reheat them in the oven at 350 degrees before serving.
They will go well with just about any protein or other side. I particularly like the texture and flavor contrast of a mushroom and tarragon ragout. The creaminess contrasts well with the crunchiness of the cakes.