Great grains - Polenta

Polenta is an Italian staple food made from ground maize or corn meal. Polenta is made by stirring the maize flour into boiling water, traditionally in a heavy copper saucepan. It can be made soft like porridge or more firm – firm polenta can be shaped into a block that is then cut into slices and grilled or fried.

The cooked consistency depends on how much water is added during cooking: double the amount of water to polenta makes it very stiff; four times as much water makes polenta suitable for frying or grilling; six times the amount of water makes a creamy polenta and eight times water to polenta makes a soft custard.

The more water that is added, the longer the cooking time - a sign that it's ready is when the polenta comes away from the edges of the pan. Cooking polenta can take around 40 minutes to cook – this takes a lot of patience and a strong arm but thankfully instant polenta is now widely available!

Polenta is a low fat, high carbohydrate food with a serving of soft polenta (60g of maize flour) giving only 44 calories, 2g of fat and 44g of carbohydrate. The major downfall with polenta is the added ingredients – it is common to flavour polenta with butter, olive oil or parmesan cheese.

Adding just 20g of butter to this serving of polenta increases the calories to almost 370 and the fat content to over 18g, adding 1 tablespoon of olive oil bumps those calories up to 320 with 13g of fat, while flavouring the polenta with 40g of parmesan cheese brings the calorie total up to over 400 with 15g of fat.

Instead of using these fatty foods, flavour polenta with plenty of black pepper and serve with richly-flavoured foods, as you would pasta.

Polenta can be used as an ingredient as well as being a staple dish - use to coat vegetables or meat in place of breadcrumbs or use as a flour replacement in wheat-free cookery, as in the recipe below.

POLENTA WITH PEA AND TOMATO RAGOUT

240g instant polenta
2 cloves of garlic
100g reduced fat Cheddar cheese
Nutmeg
Black pepper

RAGOUT

1 tsp olive oil
2 rashers lean back bacon, chopped
1 onion, chopped
1 large cooking apple, cored and chopped
1 400g tin of tomatoes
1 carton of sieved tomatoes or 100ml tomato juice
1 bay leaf
2 tsp dried thyme
125g frozen peas

Heat the oil in a non-stick saucepan and cook the onions with the bacon pieces until golden brown. Add the chopped apple and cook for another 2–3 minutes. Stir in the remaining ragout ingredients, except the peas. Season well, bring to the boil and simmer for 20 minutes, adding the peas in the final 5 minutes of cooking time.

Cook the polenta according to the instructions on the packet. Stir in the crushed garlic, nutmeg, pepper and grated cheese. The polenta can be eaten like this or placed under the grill for 8-10 minutes. Serve topped with ragout.

Makes 4 servings.

Nutritional information: 390 calories, 8.4g fat and 58.5g carbohydrate

POLENTA BERRY MUFFINS

250g rice flour
170g polenta
2 tbs soft brown sugar
1½ tsp bicarbonate of soda
250g blueberries or other berries
1 apple, cored and grated
170g plain low-fat yoghurt
2 tbs lemon juice
1 tbs sunflower oil
150ml apple juice

Preheat the oven to 200C. Sieve the flour, polenta, sugar and bicarbonate of soda into a bowl. Mix in the grated apple and berries. Mix together the yoghurt, lemon juice and stir into the berry mixture. Spoon into non-stick muffin moulds. Bake in the centre of the oven for 10-15 minutes or until golden. Leave to cool on a wire rack.

Makes 16 muffins

Nutritional information: 130 calories, 1.8g fat and 26g carbohydrate

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