Alimentary, My Dear
The Potential of Polenta
By Tamia Nelson
August 20, 2013
Cooking from scratch is all well and good at home, but few paddlers want to linger long over a stove or fire in camp. I'm no exception. Which is why I welcome the proliferation of HyperMarket "meal kits," those easy‑to‑prepare, shelf‑stable boxed entrées. They make menu planning and camp cookery a lot simpler than it used to be in the old beans‑and‑bacon days, while offering wider choice than outfitters' freeze‑dried meal packages. (The HyperMarket kits are frequently cheaper, too.) Today, even "man cooks" and minimalists can eat well on the trail.
All of which is by way of introducing a recent discovery, yet another gift from the Princes of Serendip. It's easy to prepare, versatile, and tasty. And — a necessary consideration in any camping fare — it travels well. You can see it in the photo at the head of this column, and as the label makes perfectly clear, the name is …
It's nothing very exotic. Just a paste made from cornmeal, a close cousin to cornmeal mush. And it's not hard to make from scratch. But as we've already agreed, making things from scratch is often neither possible nor desirable in camp. Which is where my "discovery" comes in. It's a ready‑made polenta — San Gennaro Traditional Italian Polenta, to be exact — and truth to tell, I really can't take credit for the discovery. Farwell drew the San Gennaro to my attention on a recent foraging trip to the local HyperMart.
I should explain that Farwell often wanders up and down the aisles on these occasions, looking for likely camping fodder. (He has little interest in cooking, but he's a keen feeder.) And since his dodgy vision require that he get within about three inches of any label to read it, these explorations frequently require that he either hop up and down (to read labels on items on the highest shelves) or drop to the ground and assume the push‑up position (to decipher the bottom‑shelf offerings). As you can imagine, the resulting calisthenics add a welcome comic touch to the tedious business of food‑shopping.
Anyway, the sausage‑like tubes of polenta next to the dried pastas caught Farwell's eye, and he noted — after hopping up and down a few times — that the stuff required no refrigeration. So he grabbed a tube and brought it over for inspection. I thought it would be a promising addition to our list of backcountry staples, too, even though a closer reading of the label revealed that refrigeration was recommended after opening. But this didn't seem like a crippling deficiency. Farwell can be relied on to deal with any food in imminent danger of spoiling, and past experience has taught me that many staple items labeled as requiring refrigeration keep quite well in the bilge of a canoe, at least in the cooler seasons. (Warning! This is not a blanket endorsement of the practice. Caveat caenator is the operative rule here.)
The bottom line? Farwell's find went into the cart. Its destination? My Test Kitchen, of course, where I subjected the heavy plastic tube and its contents to a minute examination. The preliminary results were encouraging. Not only did the tube look sturdy enough to cope with the rough and tumble of life in a pack, but the polenta itself was both fat‑ and gluten‑free — good news indeed for paddlers coping with dietary constraints.
Preparation looked simple, too, though I ignored the suggestion that I heat up the precooked polenta in a microwave oven. (I'm still looking for that elusive riverbank current bush.) In fact, the stuff could even be eaten straight. But I had other ideas, of which more later.
How far would an 18‑ounce tube stretch? Well, the suggested serving is two ½‑inch‑thick slices, making a total of five servings to a tube. But this serving size yields only 70 calories — fine for a side dish, but pretty hard commons for a hungry paddler. I'd suggest doubling (or even tripling) the ration if polenta is going to be the foundation of your main meal. And while that pretty much disposes of the problem of leftovers, it does raise other concerns. Precooked San Gennaro polenta is heavily salted. A standard serving contains some 300‑odd milligrams of sodium. So if you're on a low‑salt diet, you'll want to look elsewhere, or at least eat sparingly of any dish containing San Gennaro polenta.
Such cautions and cavils having been duly delivered, it's time to …
Be forewarned (another caveat, I'm afraid): Once liberated from the confines of its plastic tube, San Gennaro polenta is squishy and wet. It may even squirt you in the eye if you're not careful. But the preformed cylinder maintains its shape while you slice it, and the thick rounds don't crumble. In camp, I'd work on my flexible cutting mat, and I'd take pains to keep the slippery polenta cylinder from rolling off into the dirt.
Cutting the polenta is best done with the wetted blade of a sharp knife. (All knives should be sharp. The only use for a dull knife is spreading butter.) I cut half‑inch slices, as recommended on the tube, with the result that I soon had a collection of yellow hockey pucks. The half‑inch thickness is a happy medium. Thinner slices may break up, while thicker slices will require longer heating, leading to an increased likelihood of burning or sticking.
Once I had my slices, the rest was easy. I drizzled a little extra virgin olive oil into my nonstick camp skillet and heated it on a medium‑high burner. When the oil was hot — I didn't let it get so hot that it smoked, something that extra virgin olive oil is prone to do — I carefully slid the sliced polenta into the skillet, using a spatula and taking care not to crowd the rounds. Then it was just a matter of leaving them in the pan till they crisped, before turning them over and crisping the other side.
I didn't cover the skillet, by the way. A cover promotes quick heating, but it inhibits crisping and browning. The result is steamed, not crisped, polenta. The choice is yours. But remember that you're not cooking the polenta. It's already cooked. You're heating it, and that takes no more than a few minutes at most. Here's how my first batch came out:
The rounds were crispy on the outside and hot on the inside, with a pleasing golden color and lightly browned edges. (The cold fluorescent lights in the Test Kitchen don't do justice to the delicate color, unfortunately.)
Now that you've heated your polenta rounds, you can eat them as is. I find them rather bland when taken straight, but polenta's mild flavor makes it a good companion for a variety of sauces and condiments. Build your main meal around it or serve it as a side dish. Here are some ideas:
Sweet Polenta. Serve sliced, crisped polenta as you would pancakes. Drizzle with syrup or honey, or top the hot rounds with preserves — or fresh or stewed fruit. Sprinkle with ground cinnamon and sugar (white or brown).
Polenta Fry‑Up. Before heating the polenta, fry some of your favorite breakfast meat: SPAM, bacon, ham, or sausage. When the meat has cooked, push it to one side in the skillet and fry the polenta in the hot fat. Serve up as is, or fry eggs in the remaining fat — the crowning touch. (But be sure to check your insurance coverage before you sit down to eat!)
Tex‑Mex Polenta. Ladle beans or chili over hot polenta. Now make a good thing even better by sprinkling the chili with crushed tortilla chips or shredded cheese (or both). Is this traditional? No. It's fusion. And it's delicious.
Really Corny Polenta. Can't get enough corn? If so, this one's for you. Sauté polenta as described above, then serve it up. (Warm the plates or bowls first, if possible.) Now sauté diced onions and bell peppers in a little oil or butter (either real or ersatz). Once the vegetables have softened, add the contents from a can of creamed corn to the skillet. Season to taste with spices and herbs — chili powder, curry powder, or dried thyme come to mind — or bacon bits (the real thing or the soy imitation), then simmer briefly and pour over the polenta.
Cheesy Polenta. Sauté polenta, placing sliced or grated cheese on top of each round after crisping. Cover the skillet and throttle back the heat to allow the cheese to melt. Could polenta rounds serve as the "crust" for a quick pizza? I haven't tried this, but I'll bet it would work.
Polenta With Mushroom Sauce. Heat the polenta, then remove rounds to warmed plates or bowls. Sauté sliced mushrooms in the skillet with a couple of cloves of crushed garlic (add oil if needed). When the mushrooms have cooked, ladle them over the polenta and serve.
Polenta Caprese. Heat polenta, then remove rounds to plates or bowls as before. Sauté chopped tomatoes or grape tomatoes with a clove or two of crushed fresh garlic. A minute is plenty of time. Shut off the stove or remove the skillet from the fire. Season to taste before adding cubed mozzarella cheese. Then top polenta with the tomato‑cheese sauce and sprinkle with grated Parmesan. Buon appetito!
Polenta is a northern Italian staple, a cooked cornmeal paste that makes an ideal starting point for a whole range of delicious, easy‑to‑prepare meals. But it's not on many paddlers' menus. Yet. Perhaps it should be. I've hinted at some of the possibilities above, but this is just a start. Polenta has infinite potential to lift camp meals above the everyday. Why not pick some up and give it a try on your next outing?
- Alimentary, My Dear, a comprehensive collection of the food columns from In the Same Boat, including …
- "Mush Makes the Meal — From Porridge to Polenta," and …
- "Tamia's Takeaways — Backcountry Menus to Go."
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