Two polentas, both alike in dignity. They use the same coarsely-ground organic corn, the same simple seasoning of butter and grated Parmigiano Reggiano, and the same no-stirring concept. They should taste as identical as they look, right?
What we have here is not Shakespeare but Dickens: it was the best of no-stir polentas; it was the worst of no-stir polentas. One of them is smooth and creamy, with deep corny flavor and a wonderful, just slightly resilient body, and the other is thin, watery, and utterly flavorless. It’s with regret that I have to say that the scurvy knave responsible for the latter atrocity is Chris Kimball, for not keeping a tighter leash on his Cook’s Illustrated minions.
Polenta is not particularly challenging to prepare, but all that stirring is labor-intensive. No one wants to be standing over the stove for half an hour on a Wednesday, which is why the pre-made varieties in plastic tubes are such brisk sellers. Since I have those Wednesdays too, I’ve been using a no-stir, oven-baked polenta recipe from Madhur Jaffrey for years, but when I saw a new recipe in last month’s CI that promised to produce extra-creamy polenta in 30 minutes instead of Madhur’s 50, I was intrigued and hopeful.
On top of cooking the polenta, covered, over such low heat that burning wouldn’t be a factor, the recipe seized on the idea of using baking soda to soften the cell walls and speed up the cornmeal’s absorption of liquid. Both seemed perfectly sound in principle. What could go wrong?
Everything, it turns out.
This baking soda idea speeds up liquid absorption, all right. It lyses the hell out of the poor little starch granules and lets the water rush in like a tsunami, bloating them grotesquely up. Instead of “creamy”, what you get is gluey, and any flavor potential the corn ever might have had is diluted out into the gelatinized substrate, giving you a bowl of water-logged, gummy nothingness. It was so vile that my first impulse was to blame myself, for using cornmeal that was too fine and not up to the treatment. The recipe did insist on coarse-ground, an admonition I had not heeded because I hadn’t wanted to make another trip to the store.
So, giving the CI people every previously-earned benefit of the doubt, I marched out and bought proper, organic, coarse polenta. In the spirit of scientific inquiry, I also decided to run a control by making Madhur’s recipe alongside, timing things so they would be ready at the exact same time. I would season them identically with a tablespoon of butter, two ounces of grated cheese, and several grinds of pepper, and use His Lordship as a blind taste tester. I gave CI a perfectly level playing field and a scrupulously fair chance.
It was, to quote His Lordship, “not even a contest”. It took him exactly one bite to identify which was which, and to refuse a second bite of the CI version. Even with exactly the right kind of polenta, it was still weak, watery, and wretched. Madhur’s version was not only bursting with sweet, rich golden flavor and perfect texture, but also had some lovely caramelized bits along the edges that were just a little bit chewy, like good corn bread. Giving it just twenty extra minutes and refraining from any Frankenstein’s experimentation meant the difference between a pleasure and a punishment.
The only way I could salvage the CI batch was to pour it onto a foil-lined sheet pan, cut it into squares once (further) congealed, pan-fry them until golden-brown, cover with a cloud of additional grated cheese, and broil them. If I have to give something the Full Nacho Treatment to make it palatable, Kimball, it is not anywhere in the same galaxy as “a better way”.
So it pains me to have to do this, Chris, but I’m going to have to give you the same cold shoulder I gave Alton when he let me down. There are some corners you can’t and shouldn’t cut. My departed ancestors, whose ranks now include my beloved grandmother, are very disappointed in you and your lackey, who apparently doesn’t know the difference between polenta and library paste. I want you both to go to the corner and meditate on your shameful conduct, and don’t come back out until you’ve adequately atoned.
I am not even going to share the CI recipe, because I refuse to perpetuate that atrocity. Instead, I’m going to give Madhur’s, with my full, empirically-backed stamp of approval. There’s nothing remotely shameful about this one.
In terms of what to do with polenta, while a bowl of really good soft polenta is fabulously comforting all by itself, my current favorite topping is garlicky sauteed broccoli rabe and a fried egg. The crunchy, punchy greens against the unctuousness of the yolk and on top of the creaminess of the polenta is just about perfection, which is why what CI did to the poor unoffending cornmeal is such a travesty.
Oven-Baked Almost-No-Stir Polenta
(Adapted from Madhur Jaffrey’s World Vegetarian)
3 3/4 cups water
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup coarse-ground yellow cornmeal (polenta)
1 tablespoon unsalted butter, plus more for greasing
2 ounces Parmegiano Reggiano, grated
Freshly-cracked pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 F, and thoroughly butter a lidded casserole approximately 8 inches across and 4 inches deep.
In a bowl, mix the cornmeal with 1 1/2 cups of the water.
Bring the rest of the water to a boil in a large saucepan. Salt the water, then stir the cornmeal mixture and pour it slowly into the boiling water, stirring as you go. Return to a boil, still stirring, until it thickens, which will happen almost instantly.
Immediately pour the polenta into the buttered dish, cover, and bake for 50 minutes.
Stir in the butter, cheese and pepper. Serve immediately with sauce or toppings of choice, or pour into a foil-lined baking sheet for cutting into shapes and grilling or pan-frying later.
The recipe can be doubled or tripled, or scaled even further up, as much as your needs and your casserole capacity can take.
If you want super-rich polenta, you can swap milk for half of the water.