My new slow cooker -- Crock Pot is a brand name and that's not the kind I have, thus the less familiar and somewhat clumsy name -- has been sitting on a kitchen counter for a couple of months now. I've used it once for stock, once for a stew and twice for soup.
Although the results have been fine, I have not been particularly enamored of this new appliance. It has seemed more like a curious stranger than a happy addition to my little kitchen.
And then I decided to cook polenta.
I did not consult the manual, a cookbook or the multitude of recipes on the Web. Instead, I relied on instinct, intuition and the knowledge I acquired while researching polenta for a book I wrote on the subject in 1996.
Most importantly, I understood that long slow-cooking results in creamy polenta. While it is possible to turn out lumpy polenta, burned polenta -- a result of too-high heat and too little stirring -- and undercooked polenta, it is all but impossible to overcook polenta. I felt confident enough that I decided to serve a group of a dozen students who were arriving at my home early in the morning.
The night before, I poured cold water into the cooker, stirred in the polenta, added some salt and set the control on high. And then I went on to other things, returning to the kitchen now and then to check the progress. After maybe an hour, the water was hot and the little grains of corn were beginning to swell. I gave it all a stir and reset the control on low.
This little dance -- a glance into the pot, a quick stir with a balloon whisk -- went on for several hours, though if you put the moments of actual hands-on interaction together it would add up to less than five minutes.
By the time I was ready to fall asleep, the polenta had thickened perfectly. I stirred in some butter, switched the control to warm and went to bed.
In the morning, long before my students arrived, I ladled some polenta into a bowl and drizzled it with olio nuovo from DaVero.
It was absolutely perfect. The polenta was creamy but the grains of corn remained distinct -- something you lose with instant polenta -- and the flavors had blossomed into an irresistible richness. I set a stack of pretty soup plates and a ladle next to the slow cooker and arranged toppings on the large table where we would soon gather.
Before long, there was the happy sound of spoons clicking against the bowls and the low hum of conversation. One by one, everyone went back for seconds.
I looked over at my slow cooker and smiled: I had fallen in love.
What I most appreciate about this method of preparing polenta is that it keeps the polenta warm and creamy for hours, which makes entertaining much easier than when you transfer polenta to a serving bowl, where it sets up firm as it cools.
Polenta, including organic polenta, is inexpensive, too, which makes it particularly attractive these days.
Prepared in a slow cooker, polenta offers an ideal solution to casual holiday entertaining, and that is exactly how I plan on using it. A polenta party is on the calendar.