Polenta, or cornmeal mush, makes a nice change from rice or other starches once in a while and fried polenta is oh so satisfying and hearty as a main course.
Polenta is cooked by simmering cornmeal in water or stock, and has an historical reputation of being a lengthy and laborious endeavour. Whole books have been written about the various methods of preparation and the differences in taste between instant polenta and slow-cooked polenta. But don’t be intimidated – this recipe is pretty quick and simple yet still manages to maintain that sought after comforting texture.
Polenta’s creamy texture comes from the gelatinization of starch in the grain. However, the texture may not be completely homogeneous if the grain is cut too coarsely. I used Bob’s Red Mill gluten-free, 100% Stone Ground Coarse Grind Cornmeal in this recipe and it was perfect. In case you are wondering, I am not paid to advertise – I gain nothing from mentioning the names of the products I use nor am I endorsing any particular brand.
Traditionally, polenta is flavoured with butter and any number of a variety of cheeses, and served soft along side rich stews and casseroles to mop up the savoury juices and sauces. However, cooked polenta can be chilled and then sliced or shaped into balls, patties, sticks, or any shape you have a cookie cutter for, and then fried in oil, baked, or grilled until beautifully golden brown on the outside. The softness of polenta depends on the ratio of liquid to cornmeal. More liquid yields a softer polenta. Firm polenta, that is to be shaped or cooked further, is prepared with less liquid.
In this recipe, the cooked cornmeal mixture is chilled in a loaf pan and cut into 1/2–inch slices before frying. No oil or butter is needed to fry the polenta slices – they are simply placed in a preheated non-stick frying pan until they turn a rich golden brown on both sides.
Polenta is like a blank canvas and will take the flavour of whatever seasoning you give it. So, change it up with any spices and seasonings you like.
- 1-cup coarse cornmeal
- 4 cups water
- 1 1/4 tsp. Celtic or pink Himalayan salt
- ½ cup nutritional yeast*
- ½ tbsp. Dijon mustard
- 1/2 tsp chili paste, or fresh chilies, finely chopped
- 1 clove garlic, minced
Bring 3 cups of water to a boil in a medium large non-stick fry pan. While water is boiling, combine cornmeal, salt and remaining cup of water in a small bowl and stir to make thick slurry. Pour the cornmeal slurry into the boiling water and stir to distribute the water and cornmeal evenly. Reduce heat to low. (Cover the pan with a lid or spatter guard as the mixture will bubble up and make a mess of your stovetop). Simmer for about 10 minutes or until cooked through and thick. You can raise the lid and give the mixture a stir every now and again, but for the most part it is ok to leave it unattended. If it appears to stick to the bottom of the pan, don’t worry, it will all come together at the end.
Remove pan from the heat and add the Dijon mustard, garlic, chili paste and nutritional yeast. Stir the mixture until the ingredients are well blended. Adjust seasonings and pour the mixture into a pan (I used an unlined, non-stick loaf pan). If you are planning to cut the polenta in shapes with a cookie cutter, use a shallow pan such as a baking sheet with sides, and spread the mixture out to the desired thickness for your cut-out shapes. Chill for several hours in the refrigerator.
When the cornmeal is completely cold, invert the pan over a clean cutting board. I ran a thin plastic utensil along the insides of the pan before inverting but I am not sure it was necessary. The chilled polenta came out very easily as you can see in the next photo.
I find that it helps to cut the slices with a wet knife so place your cutting board near the kitchen sink. Turn on the cold water tap and rinse off any mixture that sticks to the knife after each cut. Shake off the excess water from the knife, but don’t dry it, and make your next cut. Repeat this process until you have cut the required number of slices.
Heat a non-stick fry pan over medium heat. Using a sharp wet knife, cut the polenta into ½-inch slices. With a spatula, gently place as many pieces in the heated pan as will fit without crowding. No need for oil or butter – the polenta will not stick – how great is that? I used a ceramic nonstick frying pan here, which makes the whole process very easy. Let the polenta slices cook undisturbed on one side for about 3-4 minutes. Carefully check the underside and flip the slices over when they are golden brown on the bottom.
Cook the other side for another 3-4 minutes, or until nicely browned.
Nutritional yeast is a popular ingredient in vegan recipes because of its ability to mimic the flavour of traditional cheese, but it is not an ingredient without controversy.
Users of nutritional yeast claim that it is a gluten-free, vegan product, that contains various B-vitamins, including Vitamin B12, selenium, zinc, and folic acid, while also being low in calories, fat and carbohydrates. However, I recently discovered that the high vitamin content in nutritional yeast is the result of adding vitamins to the yeast, and if that’s true, then it would be important to choose a brand of nutritional yeast that has been fortified with vitamins. Otherwise, you gain none of those benefits.
On the other end of the spectrum there are claims that nutritional yeast is a highly processed neurotoxin that contains free glutamic acid – the same neurotoxic compound as monosodium glutamate (MSG).
“Nutritional Yeast is classified as an “excitotoxin“—a classification of neurotoxic compounds that over-stimulate the neurotransmitters of the brain.” (source).
It is certainly a processed product, and from that perspective, nutritional yeast is probably best avoided or omitted from a whole foods diet, so omit or use it sparingly, at your discretion. I know of no comparable substitutes for nutritional yeast in terms of flavour, but I am searching …