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Every fall in preparation for cool-season braises, I dig my Dutch oven out of the cupboard and restore it to its proper place on the stove top, where just about any slow-cooked meat complements my favorite winter side dish: a steamy bed of polenta.
Unfortunately, most polenta recipes prescribe a 20- to 45-minute cooking time and come up short. The secret to a stellar polenta is an insanely long cooking period— up to two hours or more — often outpacing the time required for the main dish, the one that the porridge is designed to support.
I start with a heavy saucepan and some coarsely ground cornmeal. If I have access to a high-quality heirloom product like Anson Mills I’ll use it, but it’s the technique more than the ingredients that make this recipe special. Bringing a quart of water seasoned with 1 ½ teaspoons of Kosher salt to a boil, I whisk in a cup of cornmeal.
As soon as the mixture comes to a boil, I reduce the heat to the laziest of simmers on my smallest burner and stir occasionally but not obsessively. I add water as needed to keep the mixture smooth and viscous. At 30 minutes or so (where most recipes call it quits), I have a fine polenta, but at an hour the creamy puree is as smooth as silk.
At two hours, things start to get really interesting. Robust flavors of roasted corn begin to develop, and my kitchen starts to smell like cornbread on steroids. I finish by stirring in as much butter as my conscience will allow (a few tablespoons is plenty) and some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano before checking for salt a final time.
The weather outside may continue to cool, but my kitchen is just starting to warm up. Try extending the cooking time of your favorite polenta recipe, remembering to add water as necessary. I can’t think of a better accompaniment for osso bucco, braised lamb shanks, or a hearty bolognese.