How to cook like an Italian


What exactly is Polenta you ask? If you are Sicilian, like me, you never had it growing up, but now it is hard to avoid.

It is a food commonly prepared in northern Italy and with the invention of the instant kind, it has become one of the easiest comfort foods you can make in a jiffy. Polenta is ground cornmeal but was originally comprised of ground chestnut or farro, and dates back to the days of the Roman empire.  It has at times been considered peasant food (think of Oliver eating porridge in a bowl) because it is so inexpensive and yields a great volume of mushy, stick-to-your-ribs deliciousness, but modern chefs have found a way to glamorize it.  Slow cooking polenta can take an hour or more to cook, with constant love and attention and stirring at the stovetop.  You never want to leave this polenta alone or it will burn or curdle, however you can now find the instant kind (think of instant oatmeal versus slow-cooking-instant isn’t so bad is it?) and have your basic polenta in a serving dish inside of five minutes.

Polenta is a great alternative to rice, short pastas or gnocchi.  You can cook it quickly and serve as a side dish or you can spread it out into a pie plate, chill it then bake it to warm it up and cut it into triangles as you would a slice of pie, served warm with a topping.  Rachael often uses the quick cooking type in her 30 Minute Meals.  Here are a few of her recipes to try:

Sausage-Stuffed Chicken Breasts with Marsala and Cranberry-Orange Polenta (pictured up top)


  • 4 skinless, boneless chicken breast halves
  • 2 sprigs rosemary, finely chopped
  • 1 pound hot or sweet bulk Italian sausage, or 4 links, casings discarded
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • 2 cups chicken broth
  • 1/2 cup dried sweetened cranberries
  • Grated peel of 1 orange, plus 4 round slices
  • 1 cup milk
  • 3/4 cup instant polenta
  • 2/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese (a couple of handfuls)
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 1/2 cup Marsala wine

Preheat the oven to 400°. Cut a slit in the side of each chicken breast without slicing all the way through, then open up like a book. Gently pound out the chicken 1/8 inch thick. Season both sides with salt, pepper and the rosemary. Top each breast with 1/4 pound sausage, form into a log and roll up the breast around the sausage.

In an ovenproof skillet, heat the EVOO, 2 turns of the pan, over medium-high heat. Place the chicken in the pan seam side down and cook, turning, until browned all over, 5 minutes. Transfer the skillet to the oven and bake until cooked through, 25 minutes.

Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring the chicken broth, cranberries and orange peel to a boil over medium-high heat. Lower the heat and simmer for 5 minutes. Stir in the milk and return to a boil. Whisk in the polenta and cook, whisking, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Turn off the heat and whisk in the cheese and 2 tablespoons butter; season with salt and pepper.

Transfer the chicken to a plate. Place the skillet over medium heat and stir in the marsala, scraping up any browned bits from the bottom of the pan. Add the orange slices. Add the remaining 2 tablespoons butter and swirl the pan to combine.

To serve, slice the chicken on an angle and fan out on dinner plates. Spoon the marsala sauce and orange slices on top. Serve with the polenta.

Orange-Balsamic Chicken with Asparagus, Green Beans and Polenta (pictured above)

  • 4 pieces skinless, boneless chicken breast
  • Salt and pepper
  • 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil (EVOO)
  • 1/2 pound thin green beans, ends trimmed
  • 1 small bunch asparagus, trimmed and tops halved on an angle
  • 2 1/2 cups chicken broth, plus more if needed
  • 11/2 cups milk
  • 1 teaspoon grated peel and the juice of 1 orange
  • 1 cup quick-cooking polenta
  • 4 tablespoons butter
  • 2 tablespoons flour
  • 2 tablespoons balsamic vinegar

Season the chicken with salt and pepper. In a large skillet, heat the EVOO, 2 turns of the pan, over medium-high heat. Add the chicken and cook, turning once, for 12 minutes. Transfer to a plate and cover with foil. Reserve the skillet.

Meanwhile, fill a medium saucepan with enough water to reach a depth of 2 inches; bring to a boil and salt it. Add the green beans and cook for 3 minutes, then add the asparagus and cook for 2 minutes; drain.

In another saucepan, bring 1 1/2 cups chicken broth, the milk and orange peel to a boil. Whisk in the polenta and cook for 2 minutes for a creamy consistency, whisking in a little more broth if needed. Whisk in 2 tablespoons butter and cover to keep warm.

In the reserved skillet, melt the remaining 2 tablespoons butter. Whisk in the flour and cook for 1 minute. Whisk in the vinegar, then the orange juice, then the remaining 1 cup chicken broth; simmer until slightly reduced, 2-3 minutes. Stir in any juices from the chicken; season with salt and pepper.

Slice the chicken thinly on an angle. To serve, mound the polenta in shallow bowls or onto plates and top with the asparagus, green beans and chicken. Drizzle the orange-balsamic sauce on top.

Popper Polenta

Chicken Parmigiano with Polenta

Turkey Ragu with Polenta

Photo credits: Tina Rupp

5 Responses to “Polenta”

  1. Anna Guidetti says:

    I grew up in norden Italy and with polenta….there are so many different way to make and to prepare polenta, it is amazing that after the second world war…all the food we had then…. becouse people had no money and was the only thing we had to eat….today has become a Bruschetta…we used to eat it becouse was so inexpansive…only bread tomato and oil…the good bread home made…..and today it is served as an appetizer, I still love to eat good bread with fresh cut up tomatos and good olive oil….yammy

  2. Samira says:

    I’m from Brazil, I saw your program for the first time today on discovery home and health, one that was recorded on a bus in New York. I really loved you, the program … and immediately came in searching google about you (laughs) and found this terrific site, with delicious recipes. I will definitely continue watching and doing these wonderful recipes. Congratulations, you are a very cheerful and bright.
    God bless you too … kisses.

  3. sonia boyce says:

    My father was from the south and we ate a lot of polenta (or better known here as corm meal mush. We ate it like cream of wheat cereal or my dad would put it in a loaf, get it cold and then slice it and fry it, serve with maple syrup.

  4. kait says:

    When I was a child I had just been yelled at by my parents, and went down to cry beside my pet rat’s cage.When she noticed I was crying, she walked to her food bowl, grabbed a cracker, and handed it to me through the bars.

  5. Kim says:

    I want to make Rachael’s recipe for Turkey Ragu with Polenta but I can’t find quick cooking polenta. I’ve been to three stores. Are there any substitutions? Thanks so much.

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