Potatoes, eat your hearts out. It’s now polenta chips every time in my house. Baked, not fried. With Parmesan and chives.
A classic, boring and traditional (not all of those adjectives are meant to be negative) dinner main course used to be described as ‘meat with two veg’. It would consist of a slab of meat or fish accompanied by, usually, a portion of green and another of root vegetables.
Thankfully, we have gone far away from those meal plans and these days the expression is more of a euphemism.
Interestingly though, potatoes were not included as one of those ‘veg’. A serving of spuds with your dinner, be it in the form of chips or a mash, was a given so they didn’t even merit a label in that setup.
Which always made me wonder what we should call those sides of starch, mostly called 'carbs' these days, like potatoes, pasta, noodles, dumplings or rice?
I don’t know about you, but I call them fillers.
Varieties of carb side dishes
Starchy or carbohydrate-based side dishes is probably the more technically appropriate name but what a mouthful! Of course, it is only relevant in the western diet: elsewhere in the world the main meal is, arguably, more inclusive and less schematic.
Fillers then, by which I mean the (usually) starchy elements of the main meal whose function is to bulk it out and fill us up.
Potatoes are king in Europe: funny that, considering they only arrived on the continent 400 years ago.
Pasta is not supposed to be a filler, as the Italians will indignantly tell you, but what of it – north of Rome it often is.
Noodles of various description and shape are not exclusively indigenous to Asia, whether you call them kluski or Spaetzle.
And then there’s rice – whereby West meets East. And rice is also one of the easiest and as I suspect the most ancient types of filler – cooked grain of various plants.
Cooked grain dishes
How easy is it to pour grains or cereal into boiling water, cook it for a while until it thickens, then season the resulting gruel so deliciously that the ugly word (gruel) is obliterated? Joking aside, it is the simplest filler and often the essence of a meal amongst the less privileged through time and countries.
Rice has been mentioned but it can also be turned into congee, rice porridge eaten in China and South East Asia.
Then there is oat porridge of course, the European version of congee (should we now call it oat congee?). Both mostly consumed for breakfast or cooked further into sweets: rice cakes and flapjack.
But if we investigate other grains, there will be fillers; some of them actually awfully trendy. Quinoa, freekeh, amaranth, millet or buckwheat (a.k.a. kasha), of which only the last is a cereal, are certainly having a moment, even if they are not ever presented with meat and two veg.
Last but not least, there’s corn: sweetcorn, hominy or maize.
US southern states love their grits - cooked mashed corn, fresh or dried and soaked in lye (hominy).
Mamaliga is the Romanian equivalent which haunted my childhood due to some geographical perambulations of my grandmother's who cooked it (she grew up in Lviv where they also ate lots of mamaliga).
And, obviously due to the reverence that surrounds Italian cooking, there’s the aristocracy of cooked cornmeal: polenta.
Just like its mates around the world, polenta is more or less coarse cornmeal boiled in water or stock until more or less thick: a classic no-recipe then. When thinner, it is a kind of porridge or gruel, eaten with a spoon or plopped on the side of a plate with sausage, meat or lentils.
If it’s cooked down to really thick texture, it cools down to a coherent shape and can be further grilled, fried or baked. Into chips, for instance.
How to cook polenta
For the thick product that will set solid and can be cut and sliced, the ratio of polenta to liquid is 1:3, so 1 measure of dry polenta to 3 of the water or stock. Be mindful though that a little polenta goes a long way.
That refers to polenta bramata, coarsely ground cornmeal; if using instant polenta, do stick to the packet instruction.
Cooking takes a good while and you should put the polenta into the cold liquid before bringing it to a boil.
The amount in the recipe below will take at least ten minutes of vigorous bubbling and stirring. When polenta starts pulling off the sides of the pan, a little like choux pastry does, it’s ready for the addition of butter, cheese and/or herbs, if desired.
It should then immediately be poured into a shallow, rectangular dish brushed with oil or simply rinsed with cold water.
If you fancy a different shape than a chip, you can use a dinner plate or a bowl and subsequently cut set polenta into wedges.
Fried or baked polenta?
I have tried both methods and – surprise, surprise – baked polenta chips are far superior, no mess and the health factor notwithstanding.
Once the product is cold, which advisably should be after overnight in the fridge, turn it out onto a chopping board, prodding with a palette knife (and cursing me for saying no need to oil the dish, ha ha!).
After you cut it into whatever shapes you like, drizzle them with olive oil and toss each piece in dry polenta.
Arrange them on an oiled baking tray and bake for about half an hour.
I turn them over halfway through but there is no strict need for that: they’ll crispen all over anyway. Probably.
How to serve polenta chips?
You can serve them, obviously, like you would potato chips, as a side - perhaps not to fish though.
They’ll be lovely with chicken Milanese or pork schnitzel, great with meatballs or with sausages. They can also make a centrepiece of a vegetarian dinner, served with cauliflower cheese or a vegetable tian.
Apart from that they make a moreish snack, with ketchup or hot sauce, or dipped in mayo and then in grated Parmesan. Gorgeous.
My recipe sources include Felicity Cloake at The Guardian and Jamie Oliver.
More cornmeal recipes
Glace cherry cornmeal muffins made specially for the gluten intolerant but so delightful, you’ll want to bookmark the recipe regardless.
Lemon cornmeal shortbreads, pale golden and delicately sugared, are the best thing to dunk in your tea or coffee.
Blueberry cornmeal shortbread tart is really a pie, only with crisp topping. It’s a crumble but has a bottom crust. It’s shortcrust with a wonderful savoury tang from cornmeal.