If, at the present moment, you have cornmeal in your pantry, it is probably the residual ingredient from a cornbread recipe you once tried. Although cornmeal is very versatile, and a staple in every Italian kitchen, here in Canada I find that it is not very popular.
Not only is it the basic component of cornbread, but it is also used to create polenta. To describe it literally, polenta is basically a cornmeal mush that is served as a side dish to a meal.
When I first tried polenta as a child, I was extremely disappointed with the taste of it. All it represented to me was a spoonful of yellow, coarse mush that was tremendously bland.
I have learned over the years that an infusion of richness and flavor makes a world of difference. Currently when I make polenta, I always add butter, a grated flavorful cheese, like Romano, and some freshly crushed garlic.
Polenta is usually served in one of two consistencies: as a loose paste, much like mashed potatoes; or as a solid that has been chilled overnight, cut into shapes, then grilled or fried.
It is more often served hot in the mush form due to the ease of preparation, and traditionally topped with a tomato-based sauce, much like a pasta sauce. This is very popular in Italy and is often served as a ‘starch’ instead of potatoes.
Corn has been milled into ‘meal’ for many years and is also a staple ingredient in many Mexican foods such as tortillas and cornbreads. Cornmeal should be stored in a cool, dry place with a tight fitting lid to prevent moisture and insects from contaminating it.
“Polenta parties” are very trendy, and offer a unique dining experience. The host of these parties prepares a large batch of polenta and pours it hot onto a slab at the dinner table surrounded by the hungry guests.
An assortment of sauces, vegetables, and an array of grilled meat pieces are also supplied. This provides an extraordinary ambience for conversation as people graze on their polenta-dipped morsels and sip on wine.