Two weeks ago on Top Chef (spoilers ahead), Ashley was sent home for oversalting her gnocchi and underwashing her hair.
Last week, Ash got the boot for going against his instincts and changing his dish; he served up a cold, flavorless pork tenderloin. To his credit, at least this time he didn’t compare any of the chefs to Picasso.
The lesson from these two: Don’t oversalt your food, and trust your gut.
Which is exactly what I didn’t do when making polenta.
Here’s what happened: a Lidia’s Italy marathon on the Create channel inspired me to try my hand with two of Lidia’s recipes, polenta and baked radicchio. The radicchio recipe went well — aside from the leaves coming apart (I don’t think I cut it correctly), it tasted great.
Then there was the polenta.
I pulled one of Lidia’s recipes off the web. Seemed simple enough — only five ingredients:
4 cups water
1 tbsp butter
1 bay leaf
2 tbsp sea salt
1 1/2 cups yellow polenta
I happened to have extra corn meal in the fridge that I didn’t know what to do with, so this was a good use for it.
The first step was bringing the bringing the first four ingredients to a boil.
I looked at the recipe… 2 tbsp of salt? That sounded like an awful lot. Maybe polenta tends to be bland and needs extra salt? Doesn’t seem right. Going against my better judgment, I went ahead and threw in the 2 tbsp anyway.
The water came to a boil, and I started adding in the corn meal, only instead of slowly sifting it in like the recipe said, I rushed it, ending up with clumps in the pot. They looked like floating gnocchi. That’s not the way it should look.
Fortunately, with time and constant stirring, the clumps began to smooth out — not completely — but most of the way.
Turned the heat to medium-low, and stirred constantly for roughly 30 minutes, until the polenta reached a creamy thickness.
But hold on, let’s back up. About ten minutes in, I dipped my finger in to take a taste.
GAAK!!! HOLY SALTY!
Aaargh, I knew it! I knew 2 tbsp was too much. Why did I throw it in? Such a brain cramp.
(This online recipe must have made a typo, because I checked one of my Lidia Bastianich cookbooks later [which I probably should have done in the first place], and the recipe only called for 1 tbsp of salt. 2 tbsp is complete overkill.)
Now I was stuck with an overly salty polenta and few options: adding water would thin out the polenta, and it was too late to add more corn meal — that would only screw up the cooking time.
I decided to stick with my salt lick of a dish, and modify the tilapia I was cooking by not salting it, hoping the two would balance each other out.
After the polenta reached the right consistency, it came off the heat and I grated in fresh parmesan. Into a bowl to rest for 10 minutes.
The final plate of tilapia, radicchio and polenta.
In the end, not a total disaster. The grated parmesan and bitterness of the radicchio cut through the saltiness of the polenta. Not salting the tilapia also helped.
Weirdly though, as the polenta sat and cooled, the texture became gummy. That’s not supposed to happen, is it? I’m thinking that using a less floury, coarser grind corn meal would prevent that, but I’m not sure. Any ideas?
Clearly, not a polenta for the ages. This salty, lumpy, gummy mash would have gotten me kicked off Top Chef, and verbally assaulted at the CIA. But you live and learn, and next time you do it better.
Careful with the salt.