Polenta panic!

Polenta: n. a medium grind of dried corn, used in many cultures as a cereal grain and cooked into a kind of savory or sweet mush, served on its own or sauced.

Panic: n. feelings of intense anxiety when one realizes one is in over her head…


Because once upon a time I had a reputation as a good cook, and because I’m stupid, I said yes when asked to create an elegant meal for the top 60 donors and volunteers at my Unitarian church (warming them up for the annual pledge drive).

I had all sorts of brilliant menu ideas.  It would be vegetarian, so we could save a little money AND provide a meal that would be acceptable to all. It would be based on (mostly) local foods.  Aha!! What could be more local than wild mushrooms, which grow so beautifully in the damp Pacific Northwest.  And I have a killer recipe for a wild mushroom ragout from the Greens Cookbook.

The stew is served on a bed of polenta. Piece of cake, I said.  Make a few batches, pour them into loaf pans to set up, then slice and broil them before serving.

Ha.  Wrong on many counts. So wrong.

Making polenta for a family of five isn’t the same as making it for sixty. In fact making anything for sixty is a twelvefold increase in scale over what I used to cook in my maternal heyday.

Making polenta makes a god-awful mess.  It splurts volcanicly all over the stove – and the splurts are hell to scrape/wipe off. It also sticks to the bottom of the pot like glue.  After scrubbing my two non non-stick pans for about fifteen minutes each, I decided I needed to borrow a couple of teflon-coated pots.

Making polenta takes TIME. Like about 45 minutes per batch, with frequent stirring so the bottom doesn’t burn.

Making polenta hang together when you get to the broiling stage ain’t easy  either.  Grrr. I’m thinking folks will just have to enjoy the “made by loving hands at home” look, because it’s not going to look restaurant perfect.

So far I’ve made five batches, which will serve 5 or 6 people each. Seven more batches to go.

The dinner is Sunday night and I haven’t even started to assemble the vats of wild mushroom ragout, the appetizers, salads, dessert, etc.

The good news is that I’ll have volunteer help all day Saturday plus Sunday afternoon.  Now I just have to figure out how to scale up the rest of the recipes…  Let me confess right here: I’m in over my head.

8 responses to “Polenta panic!

  1. Have you tried making the polenta in the oven?
    as in this recipe:
    I haven’t tried it ( I usually just cook my cornmeal in my rice cooker, in the microwave), but it’s got to be better than dealing with the splatters.

  2. Thanks for the idea, Susan.

    It turns out that I figured out how to cook two double batches on the stove simultaneously, thanks to using two larger non-stick pans. Still, I’ve been cooking polenta all day long. That and quarts and quarts of wild mushroom stock. Thank god I had a good friend who’s helping with the prep. Our menu is quite ambitious…

  3. Oh dear god. I didn’t realize you were making it on the stovetop. Haven’t I given you oven polenta recipe? No stirring, no volcanoes.

  4. The most powerful lessons are learned thru pain. To think that at one point in my younger life I thought it would be cool to have a restaurant, or do catering.

    The mind boggles.

  5. I remember a story from Bill Buford’s book called Heat, about making Polenta for a lot (>100) of people — I found a short review of the book that includes the “recipe”


    I tried this 3 hour polenta recipe once and it was good, but I’m not convinced it was any better than 40 minute polenta…

  6. Must have worn you to a frazzle ’cause you haven’t posted since. Hope Canvass Dinner went well.
    I’ve always known you are a brave soul, but this one beats all! Polenta for more than five is monumental! Next time try putting the stew on a simple corn bread recipe (no sugar!) and baking it.

  7. Pingback: Plenty platters of polenta! A parade of pears. « 365 Words Beginning with P

  8. Canvass Dinner was a smash hit (see today’s post – you’re right, I was frazzled!) Thank God for Chris Smith, whose anal planning and logistical abilities made it all possible. She’s a nut and I love her to pieces.