Polenta is warming, hearty and filling. Prepare this versatile and cheap ingredient with care and you’re in for a treat: “unique, golden, refuge food,” wrote the journalist Giovanni Arpino. It is made from ground cornmeal mixed with water or milk, then simmered and stirred until it thickens. Polenta is a staple dish in northern Italy — the late cookery writer Marcella Hazan said eating it was “like receiving a sacrament”. She favoured the creamy results achieved by stirring it on the hob for a minute every 10 minutes. You can add garlic, fresh herbs, chilli, mushrooms or meats, or keep it simple with butter and parmesan. Eat it freshly cooked, or allow it to cool and set, before cutting it into slices, grilling, frying or baking. But polenta is best when it acts as a bed for bolder flavours; serve it instead of pasta, rice or potatoes. It’s also gluten-free and can be used as a replacement for flour. Take inspiration from Ottolenghi, who has a recipe for cake that combines orange and quick-cook polenta.