Polenta has evolved from rib-sticking peasant food into something that can be quite luxurious - I've seen it served alongside foie gras and lobster. When freshly made, it's soft and spoon- able, but if you pour polenta into an oiled pan or mould, it firms up and can be sliced. It's delicious both ways, as long as you don't scrimp on the seasonings, and use flavourful toppings.
Tomatoes with polenta, goat cheese and mascarpone (pictured)
This is a pretty dish that makes the most of the ripe, sweet tomatoes that are in season now. For the most attractive results, buy tomatoes in various shapes and colours.
Traditionalists would insist that the polenta be stirred constantly with a wooden spoon, which is tedious. I cook it in a covered pan over a low flame, and use a whisk to stir it, which smooths out any lumps. Use medium-grain cornmeal, and avoid instant polenta, or the texture of the finished product will be pasty.
For the polenta:
175 grams polenta
50 grams unsalted butter
50 grams freshly grated parmesan
For the topping:
100 grams fresh (soft) goat cheese
125 grams mascarpone
10ml extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing the tomatoes
Fine sea salt and rough-flaked sea salt (such as Maldon)
Tomatoes, as needed
Fresh basil leaves
Put the polenta in a medium-sized pan, add a litre of water and whisk to combine. Leave for an hour at room temperature then set the pan over a medium flame. Add one teaspoon of fine sea salt and bring to the boil. Lower the heat, cover the pan with a lid and cook very slowly for an hour, whisking frequently to remove any lumps. The flame should be just high enough so the polenta bubbles up and spits every once in a while - not constantly. The polenta is ready when it's thick and slightly glossy, and when you taste it, there's no grittiness. Turn off the heat then add the butter and stir until it's melted, then whisk in the parmesan. Use pan coating to lightly spray a 22.5cm square tart pan with a removable bottom. Pour the polenta into the pan and smooth out the surface. Spray a sheet of baking paper with pan coating, then put it, sprayed side down, directly on top of the polenta. Leave at room temperature for about 30 minutes, then refrigerate until cold and completely set (about three hours). The polenta can be made in advance and chilled overnight.
In a bowl, use a whisk to combine the goat cheese with the mascarpone. Whisk in 10ml of olive oil and some salt to taste. Spread the mixture evenly over the polenta. Prepare the tomatoes: halve the small ones, and slice the large- and medium-sized tomatoes about 8mm thick. Lay the tomatoes decoratively over the goat cheese and mascarpone mixture then use a pastry brush to very lightly coat them with olive oil. Sprinkle with rough-flaked sea salt then garnish with basil leaves before serving.
Soft polenta with spicy Italian sausage sauce
Don't use pre-cooked Italian sausages for this dish; you need raw sausages, so you can remove the casings and crumble the meat.
100 grams polenta
30 grams unsalted butter
30 grams freshly grated parmesan cheese, plus extra for sprinkling
2 or 3 Italian sausages, about 250 grams
½ a small onion, chopped
2 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
½ tsp chilli flakes, or to taste
250 grams canned diced tomatoes
A pinch of granulated sugar, if needed
Fine sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
Put the polenta in a pan, add 600ml of water and whisk to combine. Leave for an hour at room temperature, then add three-quarters of a teaspoon of salt. Cook the polenta as in the first recipe.
While the polenta is cooking, make the sauce. Remove the sausages from their casings and put the meat into an unoiled pan. Put the pan over a medium flame. Use a wooden spoon to break the sausages into large, rough crumbs. Cook the sausage meat until done, then take it from the pan, leaving behind the fat. If there's a lot of fat, pour it off, leaving behind about 30 grams.
Heat the fat in the pan over a medium flame. Add the onion and garlic and cook until soft, stirring often. Add the chilli flakes and a sprinkling of salt, then cook for about 30 seconds. Stir in the tomatoes then bring to the boil. Lower the heat and simmer for about 15 minutes, stirring often. Mix in the sausage meat and cook for five minutes. Add some black pepper then taste for seasoning - stir in more salt, if needed, and if the sauce is too acidic, add a little sugar.
When the polenta is cooked, whisk in the butter and 30 grams of parmesan cheese.
Ladle the polenta into shallow bowls and top with the sauce. Sprinkle with additional parmesan cheese, then serve.
If you have leftover polenta, pour it into a small mould or ramekin and refrigerate it until set. Slice it then pan-fry it in a lightly oiled skillet, so the polenta has a crusty exterior. Warm up any leftover sauce, then spoon it over the hot polenta before serving.
For more on cooking and recipes, go to scmp.com/ topics/recipes