Poor polenta. So maligned.
It does my head in when I read the sort of apologetic, bumbling recipe headnote that says "polenta is bland, but you can jazz it up by boiling it in milk, and then adding a ton of cheese and herbs and stuff".
What's the sense in that? Of course polenta is bland, that's the whole point about polenta. Just like bread, or rice, or pasta. Bland, cheap, filling stuff on which you put savoury, punchy, hot, expensive stuff. It's called dinner.
Then, once you've cleared that hurdle and accepted, welcomed, even, the fact that polenta is bland and that's ok, you smash into a wall. "Polenta takes an hour of careful stirring, but that's ok".
No, dear food writers who art in another planet. It is so not ok to stir for an hour, or forty minutes, or whatever you say, specially for something that is dammed with faint praise upfront.
There are two ways around that. One is to cook polenta in a rice cooker, which does all the work for you. It takes its time to cook, like on a stove, but it's hands-off time.
Or, you can use instant polenta. And no, the world will not fall apart. And nobody will know. Because that thing about polenta being bland we talked about? Well, it works to your advantage. Instant polenta is bland, sure, but, ahem, so is the other, arm-destroying, real one. So there you are. Two minutes away from a bowl of creamy, sunshine-yellow, comfort in a bowl, ready to be topped with a bit of this or that and a shower of grated cheese.
One of my favourite fast lunches is soft polenta, topped with pan-steamed broccoli and topped with a poached egg.
And it behaves just like regular polenta does, in that once it's set you can slice it and grill or fry it until crisp.
But that's not all. Instant polenta (I mean the ground stuff, by the way, not those horrid blocks) is something you need to have to hand for many other things:
It can take the place of breadcrumbs in many of the places you need them: to coat crisp fried things, in meatball mixes and the like.
I also use it to thicken soups or stews. Not the more delicate or dark or Asian flavoured ones, of course. But if a run of the mill chickpea soup is looking a bit more soupy than I like, a bit of instant polenta thickens immediately.
Heat milk with frozen corn kernels and a bit of salt, add some instant polenta and there it is: creamed corn. Lovely stuff.
Mix some into your crumble toppings. This works just as well with the non-instant kind of cornmeal. But the instant one is what I use to mix with the fruit that goes inside, instead of cornstarch. It's much tastier, and the grainy texture pleasantly rustic.
I´d be lost without it, I really would.
(Drawing totally unrelated, of course, but the book is just out, and I like the cover. Catalan readers, storm your local bookshops right away)