Reprinted with permission from Cucina Ebraica: Flavors of the Italian Jewish Kitchen (Chronicle Books).
Polenta is a basic accompaniment for many Italian Jewish dishes. It can be served warm, soft, and comforting as porridge, unadorned or enriched with butter or cheese. Or it can be allowed to firm up and then cut into slices to be baked, fried, or grilled.
3-4 Tablespoons unsalted butter, optional
1/3 cup Parmesan cheese (optional)
4 cups water, plus more as needed
1 cup polenta (not instant)
1 teaspoon salt, plus more to taste
Combine the polenta, one teaspoon salt, and water in a heavy-bottomed saucepan and place over medium heat. Bring to a gentle boil, whisking occasionally. Adjust the heat to maintain a gentle simmer and cook, stirring often, until very thick and no longer grainy on the tongue, about 30 minutes. If the polenta thickens too quickly but still feels undercooked and grainy, stir in some hot water and continue to cook until it is cooked through and soft. Season to taste with salt and add the butter or cheese, if desired.
Serve warm right out of the pot. You may hold it over hot water in a double boiler for a half hour or so, adding hot water as needed to keep it soft and spoonable. Or pour the polenta out onto a buttered or oiled 9-by-12-inch baking pan or baking sheet, let cool, cover, and refrigerate until fully set. Cut the polenta into strips or triangles while it is still in the pan.
To sautee, cook the polenta strips or triangles over high heat in clarified butter or olive oil in a nonstick or cast-iron frying pan until golden on both sides.
To bake, preheat an oven to 400 degrees F. Place the polenta strips or triangles in buttered gratin dishes and sprinkle with grated Parmesan cheese. Bake until golden and crusty, 20 to 30 minutes.
To deep-fry, coat the strips or triangles with flour, then beaten egg, then bread crumbs. Deep-fry a few pieces at a time in olive oil heated to 350 degrees F. Drain on paper towels. Serve hot.