One of the tastiest, most versatile, and easiest side dishes to make is polenta. It makes a wonderful serving base for osso bucco, short ribs, or oxtail. It also makes a great base for vegetables, such as mushrooms or roasted broccoli.
What Is Polenta?
Polenta is a porridge type dish popular in Northern Italy. In Italy it is often made with various ingredients, including cornmeal, ground rice, buckwheat, and chestnut flour. Here in North America, it is generally made exclusively with coarsely ground cornmeal. Think of polenta as an Italian version of grits! But made with yellow corn instead of the white corn of grits.
You can make and serve polenta warm and porridge-like, or you can let it set and slice it to grill or fry.
How to Make Creamy Polenta
For this recipe, we are making a particularly creamy polenta, through the addition of butter and cream cheese. To make it, we first whisk polenta (coarse cornmeal) into boiling salted water. Then we lower the heat, stir in a little butter and cook the polenta for about 25 minutes. When the polenta is cooked through, soft and tender, we stir in some cream cheese to serve. Easy, right?
This polenta is so light, so fluffy, and creamy, it could almost be a dessert.
Change It Up!
This recipe is meant to be a guideline, feel free to experiment with it.
- Swap some water for stock — We are using all water as the liquid in this recipe, you can easily swap out some of the water with chicken stock or broth.
- Change the cheese — Cream cheese gives this polenta its creamy taste. That said, you could also use goat cheese, Parmesan, ricotta, mascarpone, or Mozzarella. All will result in a beautiful, delicious polenta.
- Herb it up — Stir in a little dried or freshly chopped green herbs like parsley, chives, sage, thyme, or oregano.
- Chill it and grill it — Make the polenta ahead, pour it into a loaf pan to set and chill it. Once set, you can slice it and grill the slices or toast them on the stovetop.
What Kind of Cornmeal Should I Use for Polenta?
Look for a coarse grained yellow cornmeal; this will give you the right polenta texture. Fine grain cornmeal tends to cook up to mush. There are many brands that sell cornmeal specifically for polenta and say so on the package. Those are a good bet.
How to Make Ahead and Reheat
If preparing polenta in advance, cool, cover, and refrigerate it. Reheat the polenta on the stovetop or in the microwave (about 5 minutes on high), stirring in more liquid if necessary to loosen it. Stir vigorously after reheating to fluff. Serve immediately.
Here Are More Ways to Try Polenta:
- Creamy Polenta with White Beans and Roasted Broccoli
- Cheesy Polenta with Grilled Sausages and Summer Vegetables
- Polenta Casserole with Fontina and Tomato Sauce
- Polenta Sausage Mozzarella Casserole
- 4 cups water
- 1 1/2 teaspoons salt (or 1 teaspoon if using salted butter)
- 1 cup yellow polenta or coarsely ground cornmeal
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1/4 cup cream cheese
Whisk polenta into boiling salted water:
Heat salted water (1 1/2 teaspoons of salt for 1 quart of water) to a boil over high heat in a thick-bottomed 2 or 3 quart pan. Slowly add the polenta into the boiling water, whisking while you add it to prevent any lumps from forming.
Simmer and cook:
Lower the heat to a very low simmer and add the butter. Continue to whisk the polenta until it starts to thicken. Then cover the pan and let the polenta cook for 25 minutes. Stir occasionally with a wooden spoon so that the polenta doesn't stick to the bottom of the pan. The polenta should be soft and tender when done. If not, let it cook a little longer.
Add the cream cheese:
Add the cream cheese and stir it into the polenta. Taste and add more salt if necessary. (You can also add more cream cheese if you want it to be even creamier.)