When I first started #JackMonroesLockdownLarder on Twitter a few weeks ago, on a whim and a feeling of general helplessness in the face of a global crisis, I was completely unprepared for the volume of requests that I would receive from readers across the UK, and even further afield, and the sheer and wondrous variation in the nation’s store cupboards.
Ingredients that I had shied away from publishing recipes with, for fear of seeming ‘out of touch’, cropped up time and time again – an unscientific measure by any means, but an opportunity for me to reevaluate my own notion of what the term ‘basics’ really means.
Polenta was one of those moments of pause – I’ve enjoyed it many times in restaurants on date nights or the corporate credit cards of a curious journalist eager to document my response as a single mum on the dole to haute cuisine (for the record, enthusiastic about the sheer quantities of butter but otherwise largely nonplussed).
I’ve got a bag of polenta in the back of my own kitchen cupboard, years old from a corporate consultancy job for a high street chain of popular restaurants, but had compartmentalised it mentally, and wrongly, as ‘not for me’.
And then the tweets started. Bag after bag of the grainy golden good stuff started appearing in my feed, and I couldn’t just ignore it. So I scrabbled around in my kitchen for mine, and got to work.
What happened next was nothing short of a religious experience, and I’m absolutely obsessed with it. I’ll give my recipe at the bottom of the article – but be warned, you may never want to eat anything else again. So, a cautionary tale.
In 18th century Northern Italy, polenta was consumed almost solely as a staple food. It’s not a complete source of nutrients in itself, and the community started to suffer from pellagra, a disease brought on by the deficiency of Vitamin B3. After mass psychotic episodes, depression, disturbances, raw and peeling skin, and suicides, polenta crops were destroyed in various regions.
Left with little else to eat, famine and malnutrition stalked the farming communities, and many more people died as a result. Various local initiatives followed; rabbit breeding programmes, long hospital stays for pellagrosi in the early stages of disease, school canteens set up for children of pellagra patients – not too dissimilar to some programs that seek to alleviate food poverty today. Apart from the rabbit breeding, which as far as I know hasn’t been proposed as a solution. Yet. We live in unpredictable times.
I add this as an anecdote, not to put you off your dinner, but as a light warning that although polenta, especially prepared as below, is exceptionally delicious, you probably shouldn’t exist on it. As tempting as it may be.
Polenta tends to come in three kinds; finely ground (semolina), coarse (cornmeal), and pre-cooked. Pre-cooked is simple enough to deal with – just thin with stock or milk, add cheese, stir vigorously and what feels like endlessly, and enjoy as a mash base for a variety of saucy meals. Alternatively, slice it and fry fro a few minutes on each side on a high heat and serve like a giant hash brown, a base for cooked meats or stews, or however you like.
Both fine and coarse polenta can be used interchangeably; fine cooks quickly and is easier for the novice cook, whereas coarse can retain a pleasantly granular quality in cakes and crispy polenta slices.
Ultimate polenta mash, should serve four, frequently does not in my household.
How to make Jack Monroe’s Ultimate Potato Mash
Should serve four, frequently does not in my household.
- 200g polenta, coarse or fine
- 500ml milk
- 500ml chicken stock
- 85g butter
- 75-100g cheese, depending on taste
- Plenty of black pepper
First weigh your polenta into a jug, to make it easier to pour steadily into the pan. I learned this from The River Cafe Cookbook by Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, my go-to for good homely Italian cuisine, and it improved the polenta-making process immeasurably for me, as keeping a continuous and rhythmic whisk going as you add the polenta is key to avoiding lumps and bumps. If these do occur, mash them with the tines (prongs) of a fork and beat in until smooth.
Bring your stock to the boil in a pan that will easily hold four times its volume, the bigger the better.
Lob in the butter and reduce to a simmer, then add the milk. Swiftly stir the milk through, and pour the polenta in in a steady trickle, stirring continuously to combine it.
Season generously with plenty of black pepper – I’ve omitted salt from my version as I use full-salt stock cubes and a tangy mature cheese, but if you’re a fan of lip-smacking salinity, you may wish to add a pinch here as well.
Stir continuously, then when all the polenta is in the pan, transfer it to the lowest heat on the smallest hob ring. Continue to cook for 15 minutes for fine polenta, and 30 minutes for coarse. The River Cafe opt for a respectable 60 minutes, Jacob Kenedy of Bocca di Lupa carries on for a meditative 90, but 30 is fine for lockdown purposes and for our collective gas bills.
When smooth and sloppy, grate your cheese and fold it through, with extra black pepper to taste. I like to serve mine simply, with a couple of poached or fried eggs on top, some wilted finely chopped greens, and a generous dash of soy sauce. And more pepper, because I love it.
POLENTA: If you don’t have any, and I admit this is entirely unorthodox and I hope my desire to bring sweet buttery goodness to the masses does not offend, you can make something similar by blitzing canned corn in a powerful blender with a dash of milk, and stirring into buttery mashed potato. I made this in Cooking On A Bootstrap and called it Moonshine Mash, as corn and spuds are two of the main ingredients in homemade hooch, but that’s a whole other lockdown conversation!
MILK; Any milk will do, but the fattier the better. Canned coconut milk works as well, as do all vegan and dairy free variants that I can think of.
CHICKEN STOCK: The chickeny flavour is a vital underpin of comfort, and vegetarian and vegan versions do exist. Vegetable stock will also be fine.
BUTTER: Any rich equivalent will do, the deeper yellow it is the better as a general rule for butter-ish spreads, or use the best oil in your cupboard, or full fat mayonnaise.
CHEESE: Again, dairy free or vegan cheese are fine here, the stronger the better, but I must give a respectful nod to Follow Your Heart Smoked Gouda, by far the best vegan cheese I have ever come across.
PEPPER: Go wild here and use chilli, cayenne, paprika or szechuan peppercorns to ramp up the piquancy – or just standard black pepper if that’s all you have.