Polenta cakes pan-fried to golden, crispy perfection. You might just add fried polenta to your regular rotation of vegetarian meals, appetizers or sides.
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What Are Polenta Cakes & About This Fried Polenta Recipe
Polenta cakes are essentially cooked polenta that has been refrigerated until cold and firm, then cut into shape and fried.
To make them you can use leftover basic, cheesy or creamy polenta you prepared for another meal or you can cook cornmeal from scratch for the purpose.
The approach we take is to create flavor loaded polenta with a rich creamy texture that sets strong and holds well together in the hot oil. The shape of the fried polenta is really a last minute decision. You can make polenta cakes (round or square) or skinnier, rectangular crispy polenta fries.
Cornmeal. Polenta is a classic dish from Italy where it is a staple of home cooking, especially in the northern part of the country. To make it you need coarse ground corn. Look for cornmeal labeled as polenta because usually it is not too fine and uses yellow corn (as opposed to fine white cornmeal which is used for grits).
Liquid. You can use plain water, chicken or vegetable stock, milk or heavy cream in combination with water and stock. The more flavorful the liquid, the better tasting the polenta.
Butter, fresh herbs, seasonings. A little bit of unsalted butter folded into the already cooked polenta creates a silkier consistency. A tablespoon or two of finely chopped fresh herbs and/or seasonings are added to impart more flavor. We use chives here and just a bit of kosher salt and black pepper because the chicken stock is already salty.
Cooking oil. Vegetable, sunflower or olive oil enough to pan-fry the polenta cakes.
Make the Polenta First
- To cook the polenta bring the stock and heavy cream to boil in a heavy pot or large saucepan, then as you add it begin to whisk/stir it and lower the heat.
- Keep stirring as the cornmeal cooks and absorbs the liquids. Add a little bit of water as needed if it appears that the polenta is too thick before it has fully cooked.
- Fold in the butter and chives (or other fresh herbs or grated parmesan cheese) at the very end, before you remove the cooked polenta from the heat.
- Pour the mixture in a greased sheet pan and allow it to cool down completely before you cover it with plastic. To fully set the polenta needs at least two hours of refrigeration time.
NOTE: The cooked polenta should not be gritty and should have the consistency of cake batter or loose mashed potatoes. If it is too runny it will not set well, will be difficult to hold its shape during cutting and will likely fall apart when frying.
How to Make Polenta Cakes
- First cut the set polenta into shapes. You can use a round cookie cutter or simply a knife for rectangular polenta pieces.
- If there is excess moisture on the surface of the polenta slices carefully and very gently pat dry with a paper towel.
- Heat just enough cooking oil in the skillet to reach about half way of the thickness of the cakes. Carefully lift each cake and pan fry until golden and crispy on each side, about 2-3 minutes per side. Do not overcrowd the pan. Drain the fried cakes on a paper towel lined plate.
TIP: To keep the fried polenta warm after the cakes have drained, place each batch over a sheet pan fitted with a rack and keep in a warm oven at about 200 F while you work on the next few batches.
Top Tips for Fried Polenta
- Maintain a consistent medium heat cooking oil temperature in order to not rush the cooking process.
- Note that the larger the polenta cake the longer it will take for it to cook and become golden brown and crispy on the outside.
- To make supremely crispy polenta fries, carefully roll each one in semolina flour immediately before you pan-fry.
What to Serve with Polenta Cakes?
These are just a few ideas inspired by Italian cuisine. The presentation of your dish depends on whether you intended it to play the role of an appetizer, vegetarian main course or a side dish so plan accordingly.
Traditional Italian marinara sauce. Use your favorite and warm it up before your serve in a bowl alongside the fried polenta.
Roasted red pepper relish. Zesty and bright this soft textured relish (pictured above) really hits the spot. Recipe here.
Persillade. This absolutely delightful parsley sauce adds fresh herb magic to the cakes. Recipe here.
Sauteed mushrooms. Top the polenta cakes with these sauteed mushrooms and onions with thyme.
Shrimp and polenta cake. Prepare traditional shrimp scampi or use this beer shrimp scampi recipe and serve alongside the cakes. You can also drizzle a shrimp cream sauce over the cakes if serving as a main course.
Is Polenta Gluten Free?
Yes, polenta is gluten-free and by extension so are polenta cakes. The only exception would be if you choose to coat polenta fries in semolina flour before frying.
Is Polenta Healthy?
Yes, it is. Polenta is mostly a carbohydrate but the sort of corn ground to make the cornmeal for it is higher in complex carbs than regular sweet corn and is therefore digested more slowly which prevents blood sugar spikes. It also contains fiber and protein. Its calories and fat content are lower than those of rice, potatoes or pasta so arguably it is a healthier source of carbs overall.
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- 2 cups chicken stock
- 1 cup heavy cream
- 1 1/2 cups coarse ground yellow cornmeal*
- 1-2 cups water (as needed, depending on cornmeal grind)
- 2 tbsp butter
- 2 tbsp finely chopped chives (or other fresh herb like Italian parsley or garlic chives)**
- salt and pepper, to taste, as needed
- cooking oil, as needed to fry the polenta cakes
- Grease a baking dish or sheet pan roughly measuring 11x7 and set aside.
- In a large pan bring the stock, heavy cream and one cup of water to a boil.
- Gradually add the polenta while constanlty stirring/whisking so that it does not clump. Reduce the heat to low and continue to stir.*** Add a bit of the remaining one cup of water as needed to thin out the polenta.
- Once the polenta has thickened**** and become smooth (not visibly gritty) turn off the heat and fold in the butter and chives. Taste and season with salt and pepper as needed.
- Transfer the polenta to the greased baking dish and spread it evenly. Once completely cooled down cover with plastic and refrigerate for 2 hours to overnight to set.
- Cut the set polenta into desired shape. Pat dry with paper towel if needed. Over medium-high heat enough oil in a skillet to come up about 3/4 inches. Heat to 350 F and maintain the temperature. Fry the polenta cakes three pieces at a time for about 2-3 minutes per side, until golden and crispy on each side. Remove and drain over paper towel lined plate. (If desired keep warm in a pre-heated 200 F oven).
- Serve with roasted red pepper relish or warm marinara sauce.
For detailed tips and other relevant information be sure to read the body of the post.
*Polenta is made with coarse ground yellow cornmeal usually labeled as polenta cornmeal. Do not use fine ground white cornmeal - it is typically for grits.
**You can also use grated parmesan instead of herbs.
***Polenta is notorious for bubbling over or sticking to the bottom of the pan so be sure to keep a close eye on it and to continue stirring. Do not leave it unattended.
***The perfect texture has the consistency of cake batter.
Nutrition Information:Yield: 6 Serving Size: 1
Amount Per Serving: Calories: 466Total Fat: 29gSaturated Fat: 14gTrans Fat: 1gUnsaturated Fat: 13gCholesterol: 70mgSodium: 412mgCarbohydrates: 45gFiber: 3gSugar: 7gProtein: 8g