Meet This Grain: Polenta

by in Healthy Holidays, Healthy Recipes, July 16, 2009

Polenta Squares
Whole-grain cornmeal is packed with nutrients. Wait until you discover all the things you can do with the versatile Italian delicacy polenta.

What Is Polenta?
Polenta is essentially cooked cornmeal. Once considered peasant food, it’s now made its way on to gourmet restaurant menus and cookbooks. To make it, ground, dried corn is boiled in water or broth to create a warm, creamy mixture (kind of like porridge) that has a mild, nutty corn flavor. You can then jazz this dish up with butter, cheese, herbs and vegetables.

Making Your Own Polenta
Ground to fine, medium or course textures, cornmeal can be yellow, white or blue. For making polenta, choose the yellow or white varieties; blue cornmeal tends to be coarser and not as well suited for achieving a smooth texture. You might see packages labeled “quick-cooking” at your local grocery store. That means the polenta is precooked and then re-dried for super fast preparation (usually 5 to 10 minutes). I find that finely ground cornmeal cooks up almost as quickly. The typical ratio for cooking polenta is 1 cup cornmeal to 4 cups of liquid.

Nutrition Facts
One cup of cornmeal will produce about 3 cups of polenta. By itself, one cup of polenta contains about 145 calories, 1 gram of fat, 3 grams of protein, 3 grams of fiber and no cholesterol. High-calorie flavorings such as butter and cheese will drive up the fat and calorie content, so use them sparingly.

Look for corn meal that is stone-ground when possible; this process keeps more of the grain intact, so the most nutrients are retained.

Ways to Enjoy
Your polenta prep options are almost limitless. Try it in bite-sized appetizers, a side dish for meat or fish or even a hearty vegetarian main course.

Freshly prepared, soft polenta is rich and velvety. Cook the grains in water or broth (for some extra flavor), and then stir in your favorite fresh herbs, spices, sautéed vegetables or some cheese. Just a touch of a sharply flavored cheese — like Parmesan or gorgonzola — is all you need. My favorite simple polenta recipe has only a few teaspoons of butter, fresh basil, black pepper and a sprinkle of coarsely grated Parmesan cheese.

Once cooked and cooled, polenta firms up and you can cut it into squares for grilling, baking, sautéing or frying. Tubes of cooked polenta are available at many grocery stores and can save you steps. Just slice, and you’re good to go.

Storage Tip: Keep air-tight containers of whole-grain cornmeal in a cool, dry place for up to one year. Put it in the freezer for extra mileage — 2 to 3 years!

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