Perfect polenta fries, baked until crispy on the outside, and tender and creamy inside. Flavored with fresh herbs and served with a tangy lemon dipping sauce. Tasty, elegant, and simple.
A few summers ago, a food truck started making an appearance down by the Beacon river front. This, at the time, was where the local farmers’ market set up its stalls. The food truck had a great menu — sandwiches, pizzas and much besides — but for us, it was all about the polenta fries. They were served in a paper cup with a little bowl of aioli. We’d sit at a picnic table overlooking the river, and munch happily on the fries until we were satisfied.
When we’re in the winter depths and search for summer memories to sustain us, it’s things like those polenta fries that keep us going. A lot of the recipes on the blog require a significant shopping trip, or a few hours of prep and cooking. That’s fine for a special dinner party, but now and then, we just want something like this.
Choosing the right Polenta
When we’re making soft polenta, maybe as a side for grilled vegetables or a braised dish, we prefer using a slow-cooked, coarse ground variety (like our favorite, local Wild Hive). It just has more texture and a deeper corn flavor. But for polenta fries, we actually had better results from fine ground, instant polenta, which should be easy to find in most grocery stores.
Unlike the slow-cook variety which can take up to 45 minutes to soften, instant polenta is ready in just a few minutes. The key is to cook it to a creamy consistency, but not to make it too loose. It needs to hold its shape and get crispy when baked. You’ll find recipes that vary the polenta to liquid ratio, but for this, one cup of polenta to 2 1/3 cups of liquid works well.
Give it lots of Flavor
Good polenta has a mild, lightly sweet corn flavor, and it’s a great base to build on. We still have a few pots of last summer’s herbs that we pulled inside from the deck, so we decided to use them. A mix of rosemary, thyme and sage is a delicious combination, but you could choose just one. We greatly prefer the flavor of fresh herbs, but you could certainly use dried (though be aware that dried herbs have a much stronger flavor, so use about 1/3 as much).
Season it generously with salt and pepper and also a little grating of garlic, to add a savory note. Another compulsory addition is cheese, in this case a half cup of grated Parmesan (or our preferred alternative, Pecorino Romano). And that’s it. Enough flavor to infuse the polenta, but not so much that it becomes the whole story.
First, line an 8×8-inch baking pan with parchment. If you don’t have parchment, use aluminum foil and spray it lightly with non-stick spray.
You can use milk, broth or water in the polenta (or a combination). Bring the liquid to a boil in a medium pot, then turn the heat down to a simmer. To avoid lumps, slowly stream in the polenta while whisking constantly. Add in the garlic and herbs and stir until the polenta has thickened. This should only take a few minutes. The polenta should be pretty thick, almost pulling away from the sides of the pot. (Remember, we use a low ratio of liquid in this recipe, so it may feel thicker than you expect.) Stir in the parmesan, and season it with salt and pepper (use less salt if your broth is salty).
Transfer the polenta into the lined baking pan and spread into an even layer. Let the polenta cool for 20 minutes, then cover it with plastic wrap and allow it to chill in the refrigerator until fully set, at least an hour and up to overnight.
When you’re ready to cook, heat the oven to 425ºF and set a rack in the middle. Use the parchment to lift the polenta out of the baking dish and cut it into 1/2-inch thick fries. Place the fries on a baking sheet and brush both sides generously with olive oil. Spread the fries out in an even layer and bake them for 15 to 20 minutes, until they turn crisp and golden brown on the bottom, then carefully flip and bake for about another 10 minutes more, until brown on the other side.
Note: You can also pan fry the polenta. Heat enough olive oil to coat the bottom of a good, heavy skillet and set it over medium-high heat. Fry the polenta in batches until golden brown on all sides, then drain on kitchen paper and keep warm in the oven until all the polenta is crisped.
a tangy, creamy sauce
Just how potato fries are a little boring without ketchup, vinegar, or mayonnaise, the polenta fries partner well with a tangy sauce to dip them into. Our favorite is as simple as can be: a mayonnaise base with a little lemon zest and juice, a bit of Dijon mustard stirred in for extra zip. If you like heat, you could add a squirt of Sriracha or your favorite hot sauce but we like to keep it super simple. Yes, you could make your own aioli, but since we’ve barely done any work so far to make the polenta, why start now?
So there they are. Crispy baked polenta fries, just like they came out of a food truck. Who knew so little effort could make something so tasty?
Crispy Baked Herb Polenta Fries with Lemon Dipping Sauce
- 1 1/2 cups instant polenta, fine ground recommended
- 3 1/2 cups milk, broth or water, (or a combination)
- 2 medium garlic cloves grated or minced
- 2 tablespoons fresh thyme, sage and/or rosemary, finely chopped
- 1/2 cup grated parmesan or pecorino cheese
- 3/4 teaspoon kosher salt (or less if using salty stock)
- 1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- 2 to 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
For the Lemon Dipping Sauce
- 1/2 cup mayonnaise homemade or good quality store-bought
- 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest from 1 lemon
- 1 teaspoon smooth Dijon mustard
- Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste
- Line an 8×8-inch baking pan with parchment.
- Bring 3 1/2 cups milk, broth or water to boil in a medium pot, then turn the heat down to a simmer. While whisking constantly, slowly add in the polenta until fully incorporated. Add in the garlic and herbs and stir until the polenta has thickened, about 3-5 minutes. Stir in the parmesan, salt and pepper.
- Carefully pour the polenta into the lined baking pan and spread into an even layer. Let the polenta cool for 20 minutes, then cover with plastic wrap and allow to chill in the refrigerator until fully chilled, at least an hour and up to overnight.
- Heat the oven to 425ºF and set a rack in the middle. Use the parchment to lift the polenta out of the baking dish and cut into 1/2-inch thick fries. Place on a baking sheet and brush both sides with olive oil. Spread the fries out in an even layer. Bake for 15 to 20 minutes, until crisp and golden brown on the bottom, then carefully flip and bake for about another 10 minutes more, until brown on the other side.
- While the fries are baking, make the Lemon Dipping Sauce. Mix together the mayonnaise, lemon juice, zest and mustard until combined. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.