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THE CALIFORNIA COOK

Easy polenta that doesn't skimp on flavor

Shortcuts for making polenta usually sacrifice flavor for convenience. But this stir-and-bake method really works.

By RUSS PARSONS

February 18, 2010

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In Italy's Piedmont region, where polenta may be better loved than anywhere else on Earth, the cornmeal mush is a food of the fall. When the air turns crisp with the first frost and people await the arrival of snow, housewives labor over their cooking pots, stirring, stirring as coarse meal slurried in water gradually thickens and becomes sticky and delicious. To serve, it's poured out onto a wooden board in a rich golden puddle like a harvest moon.

Cesare Pavese wrote about it in "The Moon and the Bonfires," a nostalgic novel about a Piedmontese expatriate's return home: "These are the best days of the year. Picking grapes, stripping vines, squeezing the fruit, are no kind of work; the heat has gone and it's not cold yet; under a few light clouds you eat rabbit with your polenta and go after mushrooms."

We do things differently in Southern California. In the first place, fall can be even hotter than summer. Here polenta belongs to these damp chilly days of winter.

Probably more important, we don't really go in for that whole "laboring over cooking pots thing."

Nor do we need to. You can make a really good polenta with no more effort than it would take to bake a boxed cake.

Don't believe me? I don't blame you. I went for years trying different kinds of shortcuts for making polenta and rejecting every one. Most sacrifice flavor for ease. I've tried at least a half-dozen of them -- in a covered pan, in a double boiler, even in the microwave. Some cooks who should know better have even suggested that you can simply shorten the cooking time. I've tried that too, but even the best of these shortcuts didn't come close to the deep, toasted corn flavor of a true long-stirred polenta.

As a result, my family and I ate polenta only on those rare occasions when my ambition matched my mood -- in other words, only a couple of times a year.

Shortcut that works

But now I serve polenta any time I feel like it. And these days I'm feeling like it a lot. Here's how easy preparing polenta can be: Pour water into a wide, deep pot; stir in polenta; bake; stir; bake; stir; done.

And here's the really crazy thing: It works! I can't tell you why this shortcut works so well. All I know is that it does. I first wrote about it more than 10 years ago when my old friend Paula Wolfert called me about it. Paula is the kind of cook who despairs over people not rolling their own couscous, so when she recommends any kind of shortcut, I listen.

She'd found it in Michele Ana Jordan's cookbook "Polenta." But a little later she called again to say that she'd also found it on the back of bags of Golden Pheasant polenta, a very good artisanal brand out of San Francisco. When I called the owner, he said he'd learned it years before from a friend's mom.

Though it seems impossible to determine who first discovered this technique, what's certain is that it has been repeatedly rediscovered since. In fact, a couple of years ago a writer on Chowhound took credit for it, in a post they titled "OK. . . . OK. . . . I'm giving it up, my secret way to cook polenta that is so easy you will do it again and again . . . ."

Well, the secret isn't really theirs any more than it is mine, or Paula's or Michele's or the guy from Golden Pheasant's friend's mother's. But the sentiment is certainly spot-on: After you try this method, you'll use it again and again.

Cornmeal option

There is some confusion about the nature of polenta. It is coarsely ground cornmeal; depending on the region, it can be either white or yellow corn. Can you use regular cornmeal? Certainly. I made cornmeal and polenta versions of this recipe side by side, using exactly the same method. The results were slightly different, but only slightly.

Because cornmeal is more finely ground, it set up a little more quickly and became a little thicker than polenta -- more like custard than Cream of Wheat. And the polenta was a little more golden in color and richer in flavor.

I prefer polenta to cornmeal, and preferably Golden Pheasant, though it can be hard to find. (It pops up occasionally at local markets, but you can order it from www.granzellas.com, where it's $3.25 for a 1 1/2 -pound bag. Buy several to save on shipping and then store them in the freezer).

But I would certainly use cornmeal if I didn't have real polenta on hand. I even prefer it to the so-called instant polentas, which are par-cooked and dried and never seem to have much flavor.

And don't even get me started on those tubes of precooked polenta. They're fine for frying or grilling (searing covers a multitude of sins), but they're not in the ballpark when it comes to soft polenta flavor.

Well-made polenta is good by itself -- just stir in a lot of butter and Parmigiano. But it's even better when served with a sauce. The traditional accompaniment is some kind of long-braised ragù, made with beef, pork or, yes, a Piedmontese rabbit.

But there are a couple of good sauces that can be made in no more time than it takes the polenta to cook.

One of my favorites is made from mushrooms and not a whole lot more -- but you use them three ways. Sauté quartered mushrooms until they begin to brown. Add some dried porcinis that you've softened in hot water. And then finally add the strained soaking water.

Sure there are a few other ingredients -- some garlic, onion, white wine, a bit of tomato paste to add depth and thicken the sauce and some chopped herbs at the end -- but the flavor is all wild mushrooms.

For that reason, you want to use the best dried mushrooms you can find, and as much of them as you can afford. This recipe is good with a half-ounce of mushrooms (the standard supermarket envelope), but it's even better with 1 or 1 1/2 ounces.

If you want a meatier, more traditional ragù, you can still have that even if you don't want to spend a few hours braising pork. Use chicken thighs -- they'll cook quickly and still stay moist. For depth of flavor, add browned Italian sausage (either sweet or hot will work fine), and then slip in some unpitted green olives near the end. The whole thing should take less than 45 minutes to fix.

That's good, because this is Southern California and we've got better things to do than wait around for snow while we stand stirring polenta.

russ.parsons@latimes.com