Friday, November 25, 2005

How I learned to love, well, tolerate, polenta

Gloopy, gluggy, lumpy and just plain, plain, plain boring?

Polenta is a much maligned food and I'm the first to put my hand up and admit, I am a frequent critic. When the inexperienced cook serves polenta it can come out as a lumpy, insipid mess that not even the most flavoursome, simmered-all-day-til-it-melts-in-the-mouth, richly-sauced osso bucco can rescue. Rather than being a subtle foil for rich stews, I find plain polenta detracts from the stews' gently fused flavours; the little taste it has reminding me of childhood misadventures involving Play Doh consumption.

Sometimes fried polenta can be ok, but not in huge lumps, it needs to be chopped into thin strips and fried like chips. I once found a recipe for an intensely flavoured bake that contained loads of parmesan cheese, mushrooms and other tasty morsels; the point being that the polenta was less than half of the ingredient mass of the bake, more of a filler than anything. And that is the lesson I've learnt from my experience - if you must use it, make sure it is served with a heavily flavoured companion dish and not the main attraction for a meal.

Recently I was staying with my friends Herbert and Raquel and, as usual, was preparing to take over their kitchen to cook a lunch for friends. Herbert, mooching around the kitchen as he always does when food is being prepared, lifted the lid on a saucepan sitting on the stovetop. “You know what I hate?” he whispered furtively, “this stuff.” I looked down to see three-quarters of a pan full of congealed lumps of polenta, the most unappetising thing I'd seen for a while. Raquel, he said, loves the stuff, but he's never had it cooked in such a way that he's liked it. I asked how he'd had it cooked and he pointed at the pan. "Always like this. We have this gloop at least once a week and then eat the leftovers for days. I was thinking of using last night's lot as wallpaper glue on the reno's but Raquel wouldn't let me."

I happened to be planning to roast a chicken and was about to do a shop run for breadcrumbs for stuffing when I noticed the leftover polenta. Laziness is always a great motivator and I wondered, could I use the polenta to make a stuffing? Raquel looked a little concerned at first that her beloved polenta could be misused in such a way. Herbert rolled his eyes in alarm that his roast chicken would be poisoned by the stuff, but noting the thumping rain outside, soon gave in. I was clear to proceed with my experiment. Privately I had some serious reservations about whether this stuffing would work, particularly as the stuffing is usually my favourite part of the doing a roast chicken, but, buoyed on by my own culinary curiosity and the desire to save poor Herbert days of eating leftover gloopy muck, I forged ahead.

I'm so glad I did - and so was everyone else at lunch that day. What came out of that chicken was a wet, sloppy concoction so delicious it could almost have been served as a course of its own. The polenta grains had separated beautifully and soaked up the flavours of the herbs and, more importantly, the juices of the chicken. The other ingredients gave the polenta dish texture, and a bit of colour.

Here's what you do. Take enough leftover polenta (it must be pre-cooked) to stuff a chicken and mix it in a bowl with chopped herbs - sage, thyme and a little rosemary are recommended - then add other favourite stuffing ingredients such as fried onion, fried bacon, sultanas, pine nuts, mushrooms, whatever takes your fancy. Stuff the chicken as usual, roast it and serve.

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