It has been my distinct privilege to attend some fantastic schools throughout my life. I graduated from an excellent private high school in Ohio after attending through 5th grade. While there, starting at the age of 10, I learned to speak almost impeccable French. Thanks to the assiduous work of my teachers and the high requirements of the program, I became fluent with an excellent accent. Over the years, that vocabulary has degraded, but comes back quickly. I still dream in French, from time to time.
However, anytime I encounter a Francophile, I can't resist slipping into the language. It's like a comfortable pair of pants that you forget in the back of the closet. There's just one problem: due to, perhaps, the lack of typical American speakers who have good accents and can speak well and comfortably, French-speaking strangers will interrogate me about how I learned my accent if I am not French. A French-speaking family member, they insist; perhaps an aunt or uncle? A parent? Surely I had a French nanny? Their disbelief usually extends for at least five minutes. So, when asked how I learned such beautiful French, I usually say this: My mother is French. The conversation moves on, there's no further inquiries, and all ends well.
There's a French bakery a few blocks from our new apartment. The baker- or, really, patissier (pastry-maker), produces these incredible croissants, pains aux chocolats, and various other delights. When he asked, I gave my standard answer: My mother is French. He replied: Oh really?! Where in France is she from?
Now: this would have been the perfect opportunity to say Paris, or Nice, or another beautiful area of the country. But, surprised, I said the first thing that popped into my head. "The Gers", I replied. He kind of cocked his head, surprised, and said something to the effect of…"Oh really? How interesting…"
The Gers is a stunning area of France; mostly farmland, sparsely populated. I mean no disrespect when I say it would be similar to saying my mother was from backwoods Appalachia, or another equally slow-to-progress area.
Of course, I called my mom right after I left the bakery, laughing hysterically, and told her what I had told him. "The Gers?!" she said, incredulous. We both had a good laugh over it, and every time I go back to that bakery, I have to spin a longer tale about my mother's family in the Gers.
What does that have to do with this delicious, easy, hearty side? Nothing, except my mom loves this polenta, and I was laughing to myself in the shower this morning thinking of the story I've created about my mother's farming history. Make this dish to go with just about any meal- it is a welcome accompaniment to anything and everything. It also stands alone.
The exterior is crisp, savory, and rich. The soft interior is creamy, laden with cheese, and just enough of a kick. Enjoy.
Here's how it's done:
First, make sure your mise en place is complete. You will need to reach for things quickly while still stirring, and if it's not done, you could ruin your efforts. Grease an 8x8 or small rectangular pan very well with soft butter and set aside.
You can make it with water, but I always use chicken stock for an added level of flavor. I've done it with mushrooms stock in the past and folded in mushrooms and the end...woof. Delicious. Anyway, bring your chicken stock to a boil, then whisking constantly, slowly pour in the cornmeal to the boiling liquid. SLOWLY! It really will want to clump up on you, so be sure to whisk in a constant, steady stream. I wish I had pictures of this for you, but to be honest, I couldn't hold the whisk, the cornmeal, and the camera all at once.
Once you have whisked in the cornmeal, it will cook for another ten minutes or so, while you whisk it constantly. Biceps? You'll be feeling them.
At first the cornmeal mixture will be very loose. Keep stirring and cooking until it gets very thick and clingy.
Perfect. Now you're going to add in the cheese, butter, and cayenne pepper. Whisk it in and cook another five minutes, until the mixture is very glossy and thick.
You can use any hard, low-moisture cheese for this recipe. Parmesan is what I usually have on hand, but asiago, pecorino, or another hard cured cheese would be equally delightful.
At this point, you could serve the polenta and eat it soft, as is. It is still super delicious. But, I highly recommend taking it to the next level, which means you're going to pour it into the prepared pan and let it chill for at least 1 hr.
When you pour it into the pan, it will be very thick. Spread it with a spatula and try to get the surface as smooth as possible- this makes it easier to get nice and crispy later. At this point, you could set the pan in the fridge and wait to use it for up to three days- this is a great make-ahead side for weeknight dinners or dinner parties.
Once it is thoroughly chilled and set, slice it into equal pieces in the pan. Heat 1 T olive oil and 1 T butter in a large skillet (nonstick highly recommended) and drop the slices in once the pan is hot. Make sure not to crowd the pan.
I was only cooking two pieces for myself for lunch, but you could easily fry up four in that size skillet. Here's the hard part: once they hit the pan, don't touch them. Not at all. Don't move them, don't do anything. Walk away. Let them get REALLY brown on the bottom before you flip them. First of all, you want the inside to be heated through as the outside is getting crispy. Second, especially if you're using a stainless skillet, if you try to flip them too early, the skins will stick and you will end up with a literal hot mess.
Wait to flip until the edges are brown all the way around and the butter is starting to burn a little.
Continue to cook until the other side is completely brown around the edges. Serve immediately.
Here's the recipe: