#1 – 48 Recipe Challenge: Recipe 30 – Experiments with Polenta

This month’s recipe (or rather recipes, you’re getting several) is based on a new ingredient for me:  polenta.  Not something I’ve previously bought or used but I had to buy some to make a cake for a cookalong I’m currently doing whilst the Great British Bake Off is on (whole other story!) and there was rather a lot of polenta left over so I’ve been exploring recipes to use it up.

To be honest, before writing this I didn’t even know what polenta is.  I think I’d eaten it once before, probably about 15 years ago, and was largely unimpressed at the time so haven’t bothered since.  I’ve tended to avoid it when I’ve seen it on menus.  What is actually is, is cornmeal (ground corn, or maize).  It derives from north Italy where it was traditionally a peasant dish – therefore think filling but cheap.  It can be served as an alternative to pasta, rice or potato and has the advantage of being gluten free so can also be substituted for breadcrumbs as a coating or used in some cakes and pastries.

It seems to be reasonably versatile; it can be served ‘wet’ or ‘soft’ where it has a texture a bit like mashed potato, or it can be cooked, poured into a baking tray and left to set then cut into slices or wedges and grilled, fried or baked.  If you buy fine polenta it cooks extremely quickly, so can provide an almost instant meal relatively simply; from that point of view it’s probably a useful store cupboard staple to have to hand.  Flavour wise it’s bland, a bit like cous cous.  It has very little flavour of its own so relies on what you put into it.  You can make it up with stock or milk rather than boiling water, or add grated cheese, butter or herbs to it to give it a bit more taste.

My first experiment with polenta wasn’t entirely successful.

Polenta with Mushrooms and Leeks

Polenta with Mushrooms and Leeks

I tried a simple mushroom and leek stir fry which was meant to top soft polenta.  I quickly learned that soft polenta takes about a minute to cook, so before I knew what I was doing I’d overcooked it and it had become quite solid.  It was still edible (and the mushroom topping was great because I used wild mushrooms fresh from my local Farmers’ Market) but it was a bit chewy and with this dish soft polenta would have worked better.  Still, all a learning curve and in theory I now know how to produce soft polenta.  Here’s the recipe:  http://www.myrecipes.com/recipe/soft-polenta-with-wild-mushroom-saut

My next recipe was far more successful: Cheddar Polenta Pancakes.  These were great.  Very quick to prepare, I whipped them up on a weekday morning before work.  They tasted like cheese muffins with a soft interior and lightly crunchy exterior.  Certainly filling, there was no need for a mid-morning snack after having these.  I’m really chuffed with these as a discovery as I’m a savoury girl at heart and it’s great to have an alternative to sweet breakfast pancakes.  I should have used a bigger saucepan as my pancakes flowed together to become one big pancake but that didn’t make it any less delicious.

Cheddra and sweetcorn Polenta Pancakes

Cheddra and sweetcorn Polenta Pancakes

A little bit of melting butter over the top of these would be heaven.  They could be topped as well – bacon or pancetta, spinach or an egg would all work well.  You could also vary the flavouring for the pancake – maybe try a blue cheese or add some herbs.  Can you tell I’m very excited about this recipe and its potential?  This is a keeper for me.  If you fancy giving it a go, here it is:  http://allrecipes.co.uk/recipe/9004/cheddar-polenta-pancakes.aspx

Finally, I thought I’d better try a recipe using set polenta so I gave Chicken and Mushroom Lasagne a go as it sounded different…  It didn’t actually help me to use up the polenta in my cupboard (which was the point of starting this challenge, but anyway) – for this one I had to buy ready-made polenta, which comes in a packet and appears to be made from even finer ground polenta as it was very smooth.  The recipe told me to cut the polenta into 1cm slices, which seemed a little thick to me, and then fry the slices before using them to layer the lasagne in much the same way as pasta sheets are used.  (Having done a bit of reading around the subject it seems that if you cut set polenta too thin it crumbles when you cook it so maybe that’s why.)  A great innovation with this particular recipe was spreading pesto over the polenta sheets which, together with a very tasty tomato sauce, gave it great flavour.  It was a little odd to put together because the recipe suggested leaving the chicken fillets whole so everything had to be sort of balanced, with the result that it ended up looking a bit of a mess.

Chicken and Mushroom Polenta Lasagne

Chicken and Mushroom Polenta Lasagne

I had some taste testers for this one (my parents came to dinner) and the consensus of opinion was that the tomato sauce was delicious and worked really well with the pesto, the chicken would be better diced and mixed in with the sauce and the polenta was too thick and too heavy.  None of us felt it really added anything to the dish.  If I did this one again I’d replace the polenta with standard pasta.  The sauce is worth making though, so here’s this recipe:  http://allrecipes.com/recipe/142512/chicken-mushroom-and-polenta-lasagna/

Overall, since I started experimenting with polenta as an ingredient, I’ve found quite a few interesting sounding recipes.  I’m particularly keen to try set polenta as a pizza base as I think it could reduce the calories of one of my favourite foods, although I won’t be bothering with using it for lasagne again!.  The polenta pancakes were a real winner though.  So, because it’s quick and easy to prepare and very versatile, I think polenta will be keeping its place in my larder.

It’s difficult to know what to score this month because you’ve got three recipes for the price of one, so I’ve just scored polenta itself:

Healthiness – 5/10 (it’s a carbohydrate, there to provide bulk rather than to be good for you.  Calorie wise it is marginally less per 100g than pasta or rice, but only marginally.  However, if you need to cook gluten free it’s an excellent ingredient)

Ease of preparation – 10/10 (super simple, ready in minutes and very versatile)

Flavour/taste – 2/10 (on its own it doesn’t really taste of much, it’s all dependent on what you add to it or serve it with)

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