Polenta can feel like a food that takes for ever to make only to end up tasting of nothing. But a little invention and a lot of care will elevate your dinner into something tremendous. Here are 10 recipes that do exactly that.
Let’s start, as we do so often, with Felicity Cloake. If this is your first experience of polenta, start with her perfect polenta recipe from 2013. It still takes a while to make – three-quarters of an hour of near-constant stirring – and Cloake admits, from experience, that “even the dog won’t touch it” if you cook it badly. However, this recipe – which uses milk for richness and parmesan for seasoning – is as warm and comforting as a bucket of mash.
Grilled green polenta
Once you have mastered the basics, try Yottam Ottolenghi’s grilled green polenta. This takes more work, as you might expect, since it requires loads of different herbs to be blended into a paste and for the polenta to be cooked, then cooled, then grilled. However, Ottolenghi does at least call for the much-maligned quick-cook variety of polenta, which will bring down the stirring tenfold.
Nigel Slater’s polenta-crumbed scallops with sweet potato mash. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer
Better yet, don’t cook the polenta at all. In 2018, the evil genius that is Nigel Slater struck upon a recipe for polenta-crumbed scallops that requires no stirring whatsoever. Essentially, these are breaded scallops, except with ground polenta instead of breadcrumbs. Slater says using polenta will make the dish “more light, crisp and delicious”. Only a braver man than I would dare to argue with him.
Since polenta is essentially corn porridge, it makes sense to give you a straight-up breakfast dish. Brown Eyed Baker’s recipe sits at the mid-point between savoury polenta and traditional porridge: there is milk, there is brown sugar and there is vanilla. And, yes, there is so much stirring that you will come to hate your arms. Nevertheless, the result is delicious and filling.
Fried polenta nachos
The Kitchen Cooperative’s polenta nachos. Photograph: Helen Cathcart/The Guardian
Now to start mixing it up a bit, with the Kitchen Cooperative’s recipe for fried polenta nachos. This is immeasurably more time-consuming than opening a bag of Doritos – you cook the polenta, the long way, then spread it thinly on a baking tray to cool, then cut it into triangles, then fry the triangles – but served with the delicious combination of black beans, pickled red onions, avocado and feta, it warrants the faff.
This sounds like the closest thing to Soylent Green that humanity has invented, but Claire Thomson’s recipe for cavolo nero and polenta soup is impressive. It is a thick, rich Tuscan dish in which the polenta proves adept at absorbing the flavours of aromatics, herbs and stock.
Cornmeal cookies. Photograph: manyakotic/Getty Images/iStockphoto
Now for something sweet. Sweetest Menu has a recipe for cornmeal cookies that, rather than using polenta instead of flour, chucks in both. The result offers the best of both worlds: the flour provides softness, the polenta brings crunch. The resulting cookies are, unsurprisingly, reminiscent of cornbread, which may not be to everyone’s taste. But, hey, you don’t have to spend 45 minutes stirring them.
Cherry blossom polenta cake
Then of course, there are cakes. If you are a sensible person – or if, like me, you have a coeliac in your family – then this is where most of your polenta will end up. I will give you three tried and tested polenta recipes, the first of which is Cassie Best’s cherry blossom cake. Substituting flour for polenta gives you a cake that is moist and rich, especially when you drench the finished product with Best’s orange blossom syrup.
Chocolate polenta cake
If – again, like me – your family includes someone with a nut allergy, this is a failsafe birthday cake. Leiths has a chocolate polenta cake recipe that is perfect: light and delicate, with the chocolate flavour enhanced by coffee.
Slow cooker polenta cake
There is also All Our Way’s recipe for slow cooker polenta cake with caramelised pears. This takes a little longer to make, obviously, but most of this time is hands-off. It is an upside-down cake, with the fruit caramelising on the base of the slow cooker before it is flipped and served.