Polenta is a popular food dish that has long been common in Italian and other European cuisine, but it has gained attention in the United States as well. It is made from ground cornmeal, which is then boiled in water to create a porridge-like substance. Depending on the variety, it can be ground either coarsely or finely, and may be made from either yellow or white cornmeal.
The word can be used to refer to the ground cornmeal itself, or to the prepared dish after boiling with water. Traditionally, it can take an hour or longer to prepare, and it must be stirred frequently during that time. Recently, however, quick-cook polenta has gained in popularity. This type can be prepared in just several minutes in a microwave, though food critics say that the taste is far inferior to the slow cooked version.
Cooked polenta can be used as a base for toppings, such as sauces, cheeses, vegetables, and meat, much the same way that pasta can. In Northern Italy, it is even more popular than pasta is. Under various names, it's also very common in countries such as Mexico, Switzerland, Slovenia, and Romania.
After the cornmeal has been cooked, it can be left in a refrigerator to set overnight, which will allow it to harden into a dough-like texture. At this point, cooks can cut it into squares, which can be baked in the oven or grilled. Lighter than cornbread, it can be served with grilled meats, such as a rack of ribs. Alternatively, the dough-like product can be pressed into a pan and baked, and it can serve as a base for an unusual type of pizza.
Polenta is very similar to the traditional American dish of grits, which has been popular in the South for many generations. Both are made from corn, but grits are always made from white corn, and are chemically treated before grinding. The difference in flavor between the two is minimal, however, and both can be prepared in the same ways.