Last night I made Armenian Apricot Soup for dinner. While the soup turned out amazing, with subtle hints of sweetness from the dried apricots and the creamy texture from pureed lentils, the polenta I envisioned to go along with the soup was disastrous. The grain cooked unevenly–with the bottom layer stuck to the pan–and there were lumps. Lumps that, when I bit into them, were dry and, in some cases, completely raw on the inside. So I decided that it would serve to have a refresher course on the art of cooking one of the oldest, most versatile grains on the planet.
In Roman times, polenta–or pulmentum, as it was known then–served as the staple food for both the Roman legions and the peasantry. Today chefs have reintroduced and feature the grain in myriad dishes.
Although polenta can be served soft and creamy or shaped into harder cakes, I chose to focus on the softer version. To make creamy polenta, start with a 3 to 1 ratio of water to polenta. Pour the water into a large, shallow saucepan. Add a teaspoon of salt and two tablespoons of olive oil. Bring the water to boil, then reduce the heat to medium-low before adding the polenta.
And here’s the first catch: stay and stir. I realized that my failure the previous night came from covering the pot and leaving the polenta on its own. You may be at the stove for upwards of 30 minutes, but staying and continuing to run a wooden spoon through the grain as it cooks will allow it to evenly absorb all the liquid and oil.
The second catch? Taste as you go. And taste often. I ended up adding more salt, olive oil, and water as cooking time continued, but the end result came out looking beautiful: creamy and lump-free.
And it tasted even better.