Polenta for a Wintery Day

Polenta for a Wintery Day

From Debbra Mikaelsen - Images by Oliva Sari-Goerlach

Serves 4 as a side

Caramelized Allium Topping:

  • 1 yellow onion, peeled
  • 3 or 4 large shallots, peeled
  • 3 or 4 large garlic cloves, peeled
  • 3 Tbsp olive oil
  • 3 sprigs fresh thyme
  • 3 sprigs fresh rosemary, finely chopped
  • 8–10 fresh sage leaves
  • ½ tsp salt


  • 2 cups water
  • 2 cups whole milk
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 1½ cups polenta* (cornmeal), sifted to remove lumps
  • 2 Tbsp or more butter
  • ¼ cup cream (half and half)**
  • 5 oz (125g) soft cheese (Taleggio is beautiful but Gorgonzola would work well too. Grated Parmesan is also lovely.)

*I like fine polenta, sometimes called corn flour (but not cornstarch). Some cooks prefer the less uniform result that coarser cornmeal produces. Polenta will take a bit longer to cook and won’t be quite as smooth.
**This soft, creamy, Slater-style polenta doesn’t set as firmly as the thicker stuff, so if you’re doubling the recipe with the intention of grilling or broiling the leftovers, don’t add the cream to the pot. Instead, warm it in a small pan and add to each bowl just before serving.

First, make the caramelized allium topping. Preheat the oven to 300ºF. Cut the onion in half from root to stem and chop each half into chunky pieces. Thickly slice the shallots and garlic. Put the onions, shallots, and garlic in a small ovenproof dish, drizzle with olive oil, add herbs, cover, and bake for 90 minutes. After the first 30 minutes add salt, stir, remove lid, and return to oven.

When the alliums are about 30 minutes from being done, start the polenta. In a large, deep saucepan, bring the water and milk to a boil over medium heat. Add salt. Then sprinkle the cornmeal over, so slowly it’s like snow falling. Reduce heat to low and whisk continually for about 20 minutes. As it thickens, the mixture will bubble. Be careful not to let it burn you. Close to the end of cooking, trade your whisk for a wooden spatula. The polenta is done when it begins to come away from the sides of the pot as you stir, or when, with your spatula, you can push the mixture aside to expose the bottom of the pan. Stir in the butter and cream.

Remove thyme and sage leaves from the alliums. To serve, ladle polenta into bowls, and top each with a knob of cheese and a few pieces of onion, shallot, and garlic.

Learn more about Debbra Mikaelsen's attempts (and final success) to learn to love polenta, here: