Why hello there, and welcome back to Kitchen Catastrophes, a site maintained by a madman, full of sauce and curry, signifying noshing. Today we’re coming in hot, because I Jon’s feeling loopy. Which is why today’s title is a pun IN SPANISH, based on an Italian starch, and then we riffed on Shakespeare: Jon’s mind is a seething maelstrom of barely-connected threads, slashing through a spinning void.
Which isn’t to say he’s sick or anything. Oh no, He just spent the weekend hitting emotional highs, performing physical labor out in the sun (a feat he hasn’t been called on to do in a while), and having a few drinks more than is strictly reasonable when also consuming lots of salt and having increased sun exposure. Which is why it’s time to slow things down so he can pass out in a pillowy side dish from the Mediterranean, Polenta. We’re going to talk about…something, before we get to the recipe itself. We don’t know what, because…well, have you READ what we’ve been writing? We’re…I’VE only just noticed I abdicated the first-person pronoun six sentences ago and forgot to name a rightful heir. So if you want to escape the madness that follows, and just get some recipes for Polenta, click here. For everyone else, I guess we’re doing this.
So you don’t have to Google it: “Lentamente” is Spanish for Slowly
And before you interject, Beliebers, YES, “Despacito” is ALSO Spanish for ‘slowly’…Kind of. Look, do you WANT a brief lesson on Spanish Grammar? No? TOO FUCKING BAD.
I mean, if you were in your early teens when he got popular, you’re in your early 20’s now, so who knows, maybe this will help with your Spanish homework.
It’s actually really easy: “lento” means “slow”, “-mente” is the Spanish equivalent of “-ly”, it turns an adjective into an adverb. Despacito, on the other hand, is the diminutive form of “Despacio”, which makes it more polite/’cute’. And “Despacio” is a flat adverb: It’s both an adjective AND an adverb. Like how you can run or work “hard”, or “fast”: hard and fast are adjectives AND adverbs. Despacio is also the imperative form. Like, let’s say you were pulling a vial of fugu neurotoxin from the Sushi death-bot at a Caribbean super-scientist base, and your recently seduced scientist companion said “Gently!” as the vial wiggled because your arm hurt from the harpoon you took in the climactic battle a minute ago. It’s exactly like that very relatable situation.
In short, you use “lentamente” if you’re specifically commenting on something “That guy’s moving pretty slowly.” And “despacio” if you’re telling someone to reduce their speed. “Speak slowly”. (with the “ito” making it “a LITTLE slower, please.” Which is why they use it in a song about taking their time while fucking. What? Why are you looking at me like that? You all knew that was what it was about, right? The chorus is “I want to breathe on your neck slowly, whisper things in your ears, make you remember me…slowly. I want to undress you with kisses slowly, ‘sign the walls of your labyrinth’ and turn your body into a manuscript’ . This is, explicitly, the more explicit version of “Your Body is a Wonderland”.
A Justin Bieber AND John Mayer reference in one post? Drop in an Adam Levine dig, and I’ll have pissed off every early 30’s soccer mom in America!
None of which has to do with polenta, I just needed something to burn through my confusion and potential dehydration, and if there’s one thing that sustains me, it’s grammatical pedantry. So let’s take about corn-meal.
Fun Fact: “Pole Yenta” is potentially an accurate description of the Matchmaker in Fiddler on the Roof
I can’t tell if Title Jon is still feeling loopy, or if this is his typical level of “drunken monkey” verbal kung-fu. Because he’s as right as he is vaguely offensive, depending on where exactly in the Pale of Settlement Anatevka is supposed to be located, which is a matter we DO NOT have time to wade through, since we already did a bit about Spanish grammar, we have to leave “inspections of Russian imperialist borders through the lens of musical theatre” for another time. And maybe never. Though…I COULD work in a bit about An American Tail in there…
And we all know how much I loved using Mice to depict the struggle of the American immigration system before World War 1. And songs about streets paved with cheese.
In any case, Polenta is actually an Italian dish. Or, rather, the Italian NAME for a dish that’s pretty common around the world; cornmeal, stirred and simmered to form a savory porridge, or a loaf made from that porridge. The American south call it “grits”, Mexico treated the cornmeal with akali to make Masa, in Africa they call it…A lot of things, because Africa is a continent, with many languages. But the basic idea is the same: boiled or simmered cornmeal. Different regions have their variations, but it’s a fairly uniform dish.
Now, polenta is a long-standing fairly traditional dish…that no one wants to make at home anymore, and a very elegant side for Italian foods…despite basically being a peasant dish. Why are these things all true? Well, because Polenta is a bit of a bitch to make. It’s not COMPLICATED, it’s just a pain. A traditional polenta recipe is “add cornmeal to simmering water, and cook for 30-45 minutes…STIRRING CONSTANTLY.” And as many teenage boys (and girls, I assume) can tell you, any hand motion becomes irritating and slightly painful if repeated for over 10-15 minutes.
There are other approaches (to POLENTA) that don’t take as much effort, but take more TIME, and that’s because of how starches work. Now, I’m no scientist, but I have defeated/seduced several of them in my adventures as a super-food spy, so I’ve had several things explained to me, typically while being placed in some sort of elaborate and slow-moving death-trap.
“You see mister O’Guin, though last night you dined on Piranha-
”Today Piranha will dine on me, yes, I get it.”
”Oh. Well. Luckily your won’t suffer long, bec-”
”Because a hungry tank of piranha can strip a cow of its flesh in under a minute. Yes, thank you. You are literally the sixth person to explain this to me. You’re also wrong, by the way. It took the specially gathered and starved piranhas a FEW minutes to eat the whole cow. For a man of my size, it would likely take a tank of 500 piranhas roughly 10 minutes to eat me. “
”You know a lot about piranhas”
”Like I said, you’re the sixth person to try this. You probably won’t be the last.”
”You seem confident of your odds.”
Basically, ground grains such as corn retain a lot of their starches, and the heat causes those starches to unfurl on a microscopic level, turning from little balls into “long” strands. The Stirring entangles these strands, forming a network or mesh, that then traps the water, creating a gel or paste. The more you stir, the more threads you slap into each other, and the more incorporated the paste. You are, in essence, microscopically ‘weaving’ the threads into a blanket. Longer cooking times allow more starches to unfurl even longer, and use the gentler disruption of the simmering water to entangle the longer strands. You’re weaving less, but using longer threads.
Now, I’d heard that you could also make good polenta by BAKING the mixture in the oven, which…didn’t make a ton of sense to me. I mean, sure, yes “ovens heat things up” makes sense, but the specifics of “in almost the same amount of time (45 minutes to 1 hour), you can get polenta from your oven with much less work”. And that…didn’t gel, so to speak, with my understanding of the underlying science. So I decided to make Polenta 2 ways, to see how the two ways panned out. I then tried a third way, but we may not have time for it, so let’s leave that for now.
Double the Bubble, Double the Fun
I originally made these recipes while whipping up my No-Recipe Ragu, and…I honestly don’t remember whose recipes I used for them. Like, I thought it was Test Kitchen, but their recipes don’t look anything like what I did, it’s not Bon Appetit or Food52, literally none of my favorite recipe sources had what I did written on them. At least, not that I recognized. Like, yes, some of them have functionally identical instructions, but there’s no sense of recognition as I read them. The images don’t trigger anything, I don’t remember using them. And since this was a couple months ago, I do NOT want to dig through my internet search history for them. And yes, I DO keep an internet search history. I’m a grown-ass adult. If you get on my computer and check my searches, you DESERVE to be grossed out and/or confused at the deep dives into “show theme that goes “bum bum bu-bum-bum, Ba-ba BAH BUH BUH BAH BUH BAH BUM”. (It’s Matlock, by the way. That’s the core riff of Matlock.)
So I ended up using Golden Pheasant Polenta for my recipe. Is it the best brand of polenta? (Which, and I realize I didn’t cover this earlier, “polenta” is actually the name of the dish, the dish made from the dish, AND the cornmeal. It’s literally Latin for ‘Ground grains’, from the same root as pollen, and the similar root puls, or “dust”, from which we get pulverized.) Fuck if I know, it was the first thing I saw in the flour aisle actually labeled Polenta, so I went with it.
The Golden Pheasant was never as popular a story as The Goose with the Golden Eggs.
And…Oh, HERE are the recipes. They’re literally printed on the bag. No wonder I didn’t remember where the hell I got them. Now, looking at THESE recipes, the options make a little more sense. “Enrico’s Easy Polenta”, the oven baked one, actually cooks for TWICE as long as the stove-top version. It’s got a simple set-up: one cup of polenta, 3.25 cups of warm water, 1 tsp of salt, and 1 tbsp of butter. Pour into a buttered 8” square pan (so 8” x 8” or roughly 20 cm x 20 cm for our European friends. And Asian Friends. South American friends. Australian friends…), stir to combine.
I think I found the piranha to be more appetizing than this polenta.
Bake your somewhat slimy swampwater at 350 (175 for our metric mates) for 50 minutes, fluff it with a fork, and bake for 10 minutes more. And man, I KEEP screwing up the word “Bake”. I’ve written ‘back” every time I’ve typed it today. I’d show you the finished product, but…I didn’t take a picture. See, as noted, I made this during the No-Recipe Ragu, so by the time I had completed both polentas and the ragu, I’d been cooking for 4 hours, and was trying to assemble a dinner, so I failed to get the pic. I’ll tell you about it, though.
The other recipe, labeled “basic polenta”, used an interesting double-cooking methodology, probably to shorten the overall cooking time. This recipe uses a little more water (4 cups) and double the butter (2 tbsp), but it goes about it very differently. In this one, you boil the water, salt it, and stir in the polenta, stirring constantly until thickened. THEN, you dump the whole pot into the top of a double boiler. If you have an actual double boiler, use that, but if you don’t, a glass bowl sitting on a saucepan is basically the same. Just put an inch or 2 of water in the saucepan, and get it simmering. Make sure the bowl isn’t touching the actual water: the point of the set up is that it’s the steam heating the bowl, because that keeps the heat gentle. Once in the double boil, stir ‘frequently’ for 25 minutes.
In the last 3-5 minutes, blend in the butter, by dropping cubes of it into the mixture and thoroughly stirring. I also added another tsp or so of salt, to better bring out the taste of the cornmeal. You want a mixture that’s thick enough that it’s clinging to your whisk, without being grainy or clumpy.
I understand the direction “so it’s not grainy”, referring to a dish MADE OF GRAINS, is a frustrating one, but this is one of those points where English doesn’t have great distinctions in edible textures.
Did I do a good job? I don’t fully know, as this was my first time cooking polenta, and like, my second or third time eating it. The last time I had it, it was cubed and lightly fried, as part of a very bougie dinner. Of the two, I preferred the stove-top for the application we used it for. Enrico’s polenta was pretty good, but the hands off approach meant I couldn’t season it very much, and it was a little firmer than the stove-top. Both of them were warm and buttery, and I quite recommend trying it to see if you like it. I’ll be revisiting the Baked version again soon, as it serves as a useful starting point for a dish I’ve been looking at replicating at home: polenta FRIES. But that’s a talk for another day. For now, here’s some simple recipes for a warm side that’s a little sweet, a little buttery, and just feels like a hug in a bowl.
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THURSDAY: WE RETURN TO OUR DISSECTION OF COZIES, FOR A SIDE BY SIDE BY SIDE COMPARISON OF THREE WORKS, TO SHOW WHY PATTERSON’S PIECE IS PECULIAR.
MONDAY: REST ASSURED, I HAVE LIKE, 4 RECIPES PREPARED, BUT OUR BACKYARD BLITZ OF GARDENING MEANS I’M BEHIND ON SCHEDULING OUR COMING POSTS. I’LL LET YOU KNOW WHAT’S COMING SOON. PROBABLY A REVISIT TO OUR OLD COMPANION, THE CAULIFLOWER.
Look, it's the
Easy Oven Polenta
1 cup polenta
3.25 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 tbsp butter
Preheat an oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. Grease an 8” by 8” baking dish, and add all the ingredients. Stir to combine.
Bake for 50 minutes, fluff with a fork, and then return to the oven for another 10 minutes. Serve with cheese or sauce.
Double-Boiled Stove-top Polenta
Serves roughly 6
4 cups of water
2 tsp salt
1 cup of polenta
2 tbsp butter
Bring the water to a boil in a medium saucepan. Prepare a double boiler on another burner of the stove.
Add the salt to the boiling water, and add the polenta, stirring constantly. Continue stirring constantly until mixture has thickened.
Pour from the saucepan into the warmed top of the double boiler, and continue cooking, stirring frequently, for 25 minutes.
Blend in the butter at the end of the cook time, and serve with cheese or sauce.