Polenta 101: with Chef Peter Zambri

Maybe it’s because it’s a foreign word, maybe it’s because my mother never made it, but polenta has always intimidated me. Sure, I’ve heard plenty about it, eaten it before at restaurants and enjoyed it (especially with sage brown butter). But when I come across recipes with polenta, I tend to skip them –– nope, that’ll be too hard. I knew it somehow involved corn and I’ve seen it at grocery stores and Italian food delis, where I eyed it with suspicion. So when I realized it was time to figure out how to make polenta successfully, I knew I had to talk to Peter Zambri, co-owner and Executive Chef of Zambri’s, one of Victoria’s top Italian restaurants. I spent the morning in Zambri’s kitchen, asking Chef Peter all kinds of amateur questions (caught on video for the Zambri’s video blog) while he demonstrated how to cook polenta and effortlessly presented no less than six different ways to serve it. You won’t believe what I learned.

Top Photo: Polenta Dishes (right to left): the board with the chunk of polenta, salami and cheeses is the alternative take on the charcuterie & bread board idea, as described in the Serving Suggestions. There are 2 dishes of the polenta lasagna, one is the prosciutto and gorgonzola, the other taleggio and gorgonzola as per Serving Suggestions. Then there’s just some gorgonzola and taleggio cheese which we used for the lasagna, there’s another dish which contains fresh cooked polenta with the meat and tomato sauce with fresh basil & pecorino (also described in Serving Suggestions). There’s the bowl of the little fried and seasoned cubes, and then on the far left is just a big block of chilled polenta which we used to cut off the pieces for the lasagna. Photos by Deanna Ladret


It’s cornmeal. Who knew?! You might be thinking Who is this girl? Everybody knows that!, but according to Zambri’s management, dozens of diners each day ask what polenta is, so perhaps I’m just the only one shameless enough to put it in print. Here’s the rest of the good news: if you can cook hot cereal, you can cook polenta. It’s easy! And there is a (forgive me) cornucopia of uses for this splendid starch, providing an excellent alternative to pasta, bread, and other flour-based dishes, as well as a great option for those intolerant to gluten. Its mild flavour and soft texture also make polenta ideal for toddlers and babies.


Although polenta is essentially just plain old cornmeal, Chef Peter suggests springing for the slightly more expensive version, typically labeled as “Polenta” (packaged dry, usually in the imports aisle). Unlike the cornmeal found in bulk bins, polenta was grown specifically for preparation in the traditional style outlined below.


I’ve broken down the initial prep to make it detailed enough for the polenta rookies like myself. If you already know how to cook polenta, skip this part and go straight to the Serving Ideas.


IDEAL CONSISTENCY: the appropriate finished consistency when spooned onto a dish.

To cook polenta, you need:

-Pot of water

-Polenta (use a 4:1 ratio of water : polenta)


-Extra Virgin Olive Oil



1) Place water in a pot (copper is preferable but not essential) and bring to a rolling boil.

2) Salt the water “until it tastes like the sea,” says Chef Zambri.

3) Add a splash of olive oil to the boiling water, which will keep polenta smooth and discourage too much frothing.

4) Add polenta to water slowly, “feathering” it into the pot while whisking continuously to prevent lumps. Once all is incorporated, continue to whisk over HIGH heat until the mixture begins to thicken to the consistency of mush (this happens quite quickly; you’ll know it when you see it).

5) Immediately reduce heat to very LOW; trade out the whisk for a wooden spoon. The polenta will begin to resemble a living, breathing organism that slowly bubbles in a burp-like fashion. This is normal and means all is well.

6) Add a drizzle of oil and stock to the surface of the cooking polenta, spreading it around gently. Stir every few minutes, making sure to scrape the bottom of the pot every time. Do not allow the polenta to burn or scorch against the bottom as this will ruin the flavour. Repeat the oil & broth application after every stirring to prevent a skin from forming.

7) In 30-45 minutes the polenta will be ready. If there’s any doubt, spoon a small amount onto a plate and observe the texture and form. It should hold its shape initially, but relax slightly.



SERVING IDEAS from Chef Peter Zambri



BROWN BUTTER SAGE: this how the brown butter sage should look as it’s cooking in the pan. This is then poured over the fresh cooked polenta.


Heat some butter in a pan over medium-low, with fresh sage and salt. Allow the butter to reach a deep golden hue, and the sage to crisp nicely (should be very fragrant). Place a scoop of freshly cooked polenta in a shallow dish and pour the sage brown butter on top.



Place some hot polenta into a bowl; hollow out the middle, spoon meat sauce into the hole. Gently drizzle tomato sauce over everything, finish with fresh chopped basil and pecorino or parmigiano cheese.


Cheese & Meat Board

Create a snack platter with a rustic Italian twist: in place of bread or crackers, put a hefty dollop of polenta straight onto the cheese board. Allow to cool and harden a little, serve with an assortment of cheeses, olives and meat (polenta can simply be cut with a cheese knife).


ASSEMBLING LASAGNAS: Peter layers the slices of polenta with cheese


Gluten-Free Lasagna

Leftover alert! Scrape what’s left behind of your freshly cooked polenta into a small dish, or if you have lots, into a loaf pan. Refrigerate. Once it’s chilled, it will be nice and rubbery and pop right out of the dish onto a cutting board. It can then be sliced and used to make lasagna! Chef Zambri made two different kinds, one with prosciutto and gorgonzola (easy on the gorgonzola), and one meatless with gorgonzola and taleggio cheese. Put some olive oil in the bottom of a small baking dish; add the first slice of polenta, followed by meat or cheese, repeat. Add one final slice to the top of the ‘sandwich’. Bake at 400 until golden.






Polenta Cubes, Shallow-Fried and Seasoned

Here’s another idea (already home tested with great success). Cut cold polenta into 1/2″ cubes and toss in a bowl with some corn starch. Place a pan on the stove with about 1/2″ of canola oil in it; set to High. Once the oil is just about smoking, dump in the corn-starched cubes. Shallow-fry these for about ten minutes, stirring occasionally to make sure they cook evenly. In the meantime, take another bowl and add chili flakes, ground Espelette pepper, parmesan and very finely chopped fresh parsley. Once cubes are crispy and golden, remove from pan with a slotted spoon and place on paper towel to absorb excess oil. Then, toss the cubes in the seasoning. Serve as snacks at a party or whenever a carb attack strikes.


CUBETTE CROCCANTE PICCANTE: these are the little shallow fried polenta cubes

820 Yates St

Victoria, B.C.

(250) 360-1171




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