Polenta, any way you like

Polenta is one of those archetypal Italian dishes which conjures up pictures of medieval housewives — sleeves rolled up, stirring and stirring, and stirring and stirring, in front of a massive hearth. Meanwhile, the men folk are lounging at table taking drink and waiting for mum to serve lunch, or afternoon tea, or dinner, or whatever.

It had not been part of my repertoire, shying away as I do from jobs which take any great length of time. In stepped Barbara Kafka, and her marvellous book, Microwave Gourmet. This book, more than any other, set me on a path of creativity through the microwave. Until then I had considered it with some fair amount of disdain, probably based on distrust as much as anything.

Ms Kafka had been through similar crises, confronted them head-on, and discovered the microwave as a marvellous tool in the kitchen. Now I look on it as an extra cook in the kitchen, another pair of hands, something entirely consistent in its results. It is always able to come up with another surprise, or better still, a breakthrough.

Such is the case with polenta, the grain resulting from dried corn kernels. If you look at ten thousand Italian cook books, this is what they will tell you: ‘Toss the grains gently into a stream of boiling water, and stir constantly for half to one hour.’ Do it in the microwave and it costs you no time at all.

¼ cup polenta

4 cups water

2 teaspoons salt

50g butter black pepper

50g Parmesan, or for something really rich, your favourite blue cheese

plenty of fresh herbs


Mix the polenta, water and salt in a wide bowl, and cook uncovered for 6 minutes. Stir, and then cook for about the same time, until the mixture gets somewhere near what you’d call ’setting point’ if you were making jam. The longer you cook the mixture, the firmer it will become.


It’s really up to you what you add to the cooked polenta. A good starting point — and this applies to most pasta, or rice, or couscous, or polenta — is to look about and see what has a gusty flavour, but needs a carrier to take it into the big time. Start with plenty of butter, black pepper and a solidly flavoured cheese, and whip the lot together, adding the freshest herbs from your garden. That’s it really. It makes for a delicious accompaniment to just about anything.


If you leave the polenta to cool down, it will firm up, and be not unlike bread. This is the sort of stuff that flash restaurants serve next to beef and lamb and chicken when they are going through a back-to-peasantry phase. They usually serve it grilled, drizzled with more butter, and perhaps topped with a melting cheese.

WINE: Shiraz from the mother Barossa has all the spice, oomph and honesty needed here. Try St Hallett’s Old Block, Rockford’s or Wolf Blass Brown Label.