You can go to a fancy store and buy a fancy 24-ounce bag of cornmeal for polenta, and it will cost you less than $5.

In recent years, chefs at many of the best restaurants discovered polenta, though the fad has died down. But it is easy to understand why it has been so popular. Properly made, polenta is smooth, creamy and astonishingly versatile.

It’s also inexpensive. Polenta is what poor Italian families used to cook at the end of the month, when money was tight. You could make a great meal — and you know Italians are all about their great meals — for literally pennies (or a few lire).

What Italians know as polenta, Americans call grits. It’s just cornmeal. 

Polenta can be transcendently delicious if you make it right, but making it right takes time and dedication. Basically, you have to stir. And stir. And stir.

But it is unquestionably worth the effort. If you’ve never had polenta that is perfectly smooth, like corn-flavored satin, you’ve never really had polenta.

I learned the method for extraordinary polenta from “The Silver Spoon,” which is more or less the Italian version of “The Joy of Cooking” — it’s massive, comprehensive and is the most successful cookbook in Italian history.

“The Silver Spoon” method for cooking polenta calls for two pots of boiling, salted water. Into one, you slowly drizzle the cornmeal, stirring all the while. When the polenta in that pot starts to get too thick to stir, you add a ladle of boiling water from the other pot. Stir and add water. Stir and add water. And keep it up for 45 minutes to 1 hour until the corn has no raw taste whatsoever and the polenta is so smooth and creamy you almost can’t tell it has grains in it.

That’s the way I’ve made polenta ever since I bought the English translation of the book several years ago, and the results have been spectacular. But I always wondered if there were something else I could do to make it even better. Specifically, I wondered if I should apply the First Rule of Cooking: If something is made with water, it will taste better when made with stock.

So I cooked up a big batch, replacing perhaps one-third of the water with chicken stock. It definitely enhanced the flavor and made it stronger and more chickeny.

But I’m not convinced that’s a good thing. Instead of being meltingly delicious and heartily smooth, it turned into a chicken dish with corn. It was quite good in its own right, and it would have been fine if I weren’t planning to gussy it up.

But one of the joys of polenta is the way it acts as a blank canvas. It absorbs the flavors of whatever you serve with it, and improves them. Even the most basic of additions, such as milk or butter or sautéed mushrooms, turns it into something glorious.

But I wanted better than glorious. I wanted transformative.

So I made polenta with sausage, because it gave me a chance to fry polenta, which is one of my favorite things. First you make a fairly firm polenta by using less water than you would for a soupier one. Then you let it set, slice it into wedges and fry them in plenty of butter. The polenta gets a wonderful golden crust on the outside and a warm, creamy inside.

I like to serve these fried polenta wedges with something earthy, such as beans, but I also wanted to make one dish with tomato sauce. So I paired it with tomato sauce and a spicy sausage, and it was superb. The polenta wedge buffered the richness of the other ingredients.

I next made polenta with ricotta (none of these recipe names is likely to win a recipe-name contest, but they probably sounded better in the original Italian). This is a layered dish with firm polenta, ricotta cheese, Parmesan, tomato sauce and then more polenta. I made it two layers deep, and it baked up light and almost fluffy.

Think of it as lasagna with polenta instead of noodles. Now picture how great that tastes.

Polenta with gorgonzola takes advantage of the unbeatable way polenta goes with melted gorgonzola, a highly flavored blue cheese (fontina is another great pairing). This one is simple: just make the polenta, add a pat of butter and a slice of gorgonzola and heat until the cheese and butter melt.

I think my favorite polenta dish is the one I made last, polenta soup. This recipe doesn’t even need all the time-consuming stirring. You simply sauté onions, stir in some cornmeal and add warm milk and water.

Cook it for an hour, stirring occasionally, and you end up with something … transformative.

It is a hearty, filling soup, thick and satisfying, that tastes like onion-kissed corn.


Polenta with gorgonzola

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups coarse polenta flour (cornmeal)

4 tablespoons butter, divided

5 ounces gorgonzola cheese, sliced

Parmesan cheese to serve, optional

Preheat oven to 350 degrees F.

Directions

Bring 5 cups of salted water to a boil, and have another pot with at least 5 cups of salted water boiling also. Sprinkle the polenta flour into the first pot while continuously stirring. As soon as the polenta stiffens, soften it with a bit of the reserved hot water (polenta thickens with heat and softens with water). Cook, stirring frequently or constantly and adding hot water when needed until soft and smooth, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Pour the polenta into individual ovenproof dishes while it is still hot. Put a piece of butter in the middle of each, pushing it down slightly into the polenta, and lay a small slice of gorgonzola on top. Bake until the butter and gorgonzola have completely melted. Serve with Parmesan, if desired.

— Adapted from “The Silver Spoon.”

Per serving: 590 calories; 25 g fat; 15 g saturated fat; 62 mg cholesterol; 15 g protein; 79 g carbohydrate; 2 g sugar; 4 g fiber; 496 mg sodium; 194 mg calcium.

Polenta with sausage

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

1 1/4 cups coarse polenta flour (cornmeal)

2 tablespoons butter

7 ounces Italian sausages, cut into short lengths

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped, see note

1 carrot chopped, see note

1 celery rib chopped, see note

2 1/4 cups strained tomatoes, see note

Salt and pepper

Directions

Note: Substitute your favorite tomato sauce for the one cooked in this recipe, if you wish.

Bring 2 1/2 cups of salted water to a boil, and have another pot with at least 2 1/2 cups of salted water boiling also. Sprinkle the polenta flour into the first pot while continuously stirring. As soon as the polenta stiffens, soften it with a bit of the reserved hot water (polenta thickens with heat and softens with water). Cook, stirring frequently or constantly and adding hot water when needed until soft and smooth, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Pour the polenta into a skillet or wide bowl, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate until set, at least 2 hours or up to overnight.

Slice the polenta into wedges. Melt 1 tablespoon of the butter in a skillet over medium-high heat. Fry half of the polenta wedges in the butter until golden brown, about 4 to 5 minutes per side. Do the same with the remaining half of the polenta wedges and remaining tablespoon of butter.

Prick the sausages, place in a dry skillet and cook over medium heat for 5 to 6 minutes, until the fat is rendered; then remove with a slotted spoon.

Heat the oil in the pan, add the onion, carrot and celery, and cook for 2 minutes. Pour in the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper to taste, and cook for 20 minutes to make a sauce.

Add the sausage to the tomato sauce and continue cooking for an additional 10 minutes. To serve, spoon the sausage and tomato sauce around the wedges of fried polenta.

— Adapted from “The Silver Spoon.”

Per serving: 445 calories; 21 g fat; 7 g saturated fat; 30 mg cholesterol; 11 g protein; 53 g carbohydrate; 8 g sugar; 5 g fiber; 1,135 mg sodium; 22 mg calcium.

Polenta soup

Makes: 4 servings

Ingredients

6 tablespoons butter, divided

1 onion, chopped

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1 quart (4 cups) milk

2 1/4 cups water

1 1/4 cups coarse polenta flour (cornmeal)

Salt and pepper

1/2 cup heavy cream

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Directions

Melt 3 tablespoons of the butter in a large pan, add the onion and cook over low heat, stirring occasionally, until lightly browned, about 10 minutes. Meanwhile, mix together the milk and water in another pan and bring to just below simmering point, then remove from the heat.

Stir the polenta flour into the onion and cook, stirring continuously, for 2 to 3 minutes. Gradually stir in the warm milk and water. Season with salt and pepper to taste and cook for 1 hour. Stir in the cream, the remaining 3 tablespoons butter and the Parmesan cheese, and serve.

— Adapted from “The Silver Spoon.”

Per serving: 663 calories; 41 g fat; 25 g saturated fat; 121 mg cholesterol; 18 g protein; 55 g carbohydrate; 15 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 378 mg sodium; 515 mg calcium.

Polenta with ricotta

Makes: 8 servings

Ingredients

2 1/2 cups coarse polenta flour (cornmeal)

1 (15-ounce) container, or 2 cups, ricotta cheese

3 tablespoons olive oil

1 onion, chopped

2 ounces pancetta, diced

3 tomatoes, peeled and diced

2 tablespoons butter, plus extra for greasing

2/3 cup Parmesan cheese

Salt and pepper

Directions

Bring 5 cups of salted water to a boil, and have another pot with at least 5 cups of salted water boiling also. Sprinkle the polenta flour into the first pot while continuously stirring. As soon as the polenta stiffens, soften it with a bit of the reserved hot water (polenta thickens with heat and softens with water). Cook over medium heat, stirring frequently or constantly and adding hot water when needed until soft and smooth, about 45 minutes to 1 hour.

Pour the polenta onto a counter or tray, and let cool and set, then cut it into slices. Beat the ricotta in a bowl until smooth.

Heat the oil in a small pan, add the onion and pancetta and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally for 5 minutes. Add the tomatoes, season with salt and pepper to taste, and simmer for 30 minutes. Meanwhile, preheat the oven to 350 degrees F.

Grease an 8- by 8-inch baking pan with butter. Arrange the polenta, ricotta, Parmesan and tomato sauce in layers in the prepared dish, finishing with a layer of polenta. Dot with the butter and bake 20 to 25 minutes (place the pan on a baking sheet if it threatens to boil or spill over).

— Adapted from “The Silver Spoon.”

Per serving: 416 calories; 19 g fat; 9 g saturated fat; 47 mg cholesterol; 16 g protein; 44 g carbohydrate; 3 g sugar; 3 g fiber; 409 mg sodium; 254 mg calcium.

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