Polenta: Humble Porridge & Fine Dining
Once a peasant food, polenta has been celebrated in all types of cuisine, most noted for it's versatility. While it has been likened to the term "Italian grits," this humble, cornmeal dish can be made into lovely, eye-catching terrines or simply buttered with Parmgiano for a complementary side dish to meat or seafood.
by: Piergiorgio Nicoletti
One of my first memories of polenta - the creamy, golden-yellow cornmeal sometimes described as “Italian grits” - is from when I was four or five years old. My aunt - zia Maria (zia means “aunt” in Italian) - was known in Cannaregio, the neighborhood in which we lived in Venice, for being an extraordinary cook - and a real pain for most of the grocers. She was incredibly precise and demanding when shopping for the family. In my opinion, the real artist in zia Maria’s household was her domestica, the housekeeper, but it was zia Maria who used to take all the credit.
My culinary awe for polenta began when zia Maria presented us with a polenta pastissada coi funghi, montasio e fontina (a baked polenta with wild mushrooms montasio and fontina cheese). After fifty years, I still remember that meal. I was her guest for the weekend and the next day that culinary marvel was followed by a grilled white polenta e baccalà mantecato - an extraordinary Venetian stockfish recipe. Both of these are real delicacies, demonstrating the renowned Venetian gastronomical creativity. This one-two polenta feast was impressed so strongly in my memory that since then just the sound of the word - pronounced poh-LEN-tah in Italian - lifts my spirits.
The word “polenta” has Hebrew, Greek and Latin (pulmentum) origins. Since the most ancient times, people have eaten some form of ground grain cereal (originally made from wheat, barley, millet, spelt (farro) or buckwheat), cooked in water or milk. In some areas of Italy polenta was prepared using course chestnut flour or flours made from dried legumes, such as fava beans, chickpeas, or cicerchia - a cereal similar to chickpeas but with a sweeter, earthier flavor still common in central and southern Italy. These different types of polenta, as alternatives to bread and pasta, have been basic to the diet of rural populations for centuries.
Beginning in the late 16th century - after the introduction of corn in Europe from the Americas (where it was known in Peru as “mahyz”) - polenta made from corn became the main source of nourishment for farm families in northeastern Italy. The importance of polenta in the everyday diet of northern Italians - especially in Veneto and Lombardy, where the climate and soil are well suited for the cultivation of corn - cannot be overstated; historically, polenta has been as essential to the diet of northern Italians as the potato has been for the Irish and Germans. To this day, polenta is mainly associated with northern Italy and is a beloved element of the now celebrated “cucina povera” - meaning the “humble food” of Italian cuisine.
For many northern Italians - particularly those who immigrated to South and North America - polenta evokes memories of family, warmth and winters around the fireplace when polenta was cooked in the paiolo - a copper pot used exclusively for the making of polenta. Venetians in general, but also gourmands and people that love good regional food, still appreciate this wonderful way to accompany an infinite number of regional recipes - from Fegato alla veneziana (a delicious recipe based on veal liver and onions) to Baccalà alla vicentina (a unique stockfish recipe) to the various pasticci (a culinary term meaning a “delicious mess”).
These pastiches are often prepared with leftover polenta. In such recipes, sliced polenta - sometimes grilled - is layered with cheese, such as montasio, gorgonzola, taleggio, or asiago, and then baked in the oven. Sometimes polenta is baked in combination with wild mushrooms or delicious ragouts, or various braised meats. Whenever there is a sugo (sauce) or strongly flavored sauce that needs a mild, warm cereal balance, polenta is a great choice. Polenta’s absorption of liquid makes it the perfect complement for very soupy sauces - and an interesting alternative to potatoes, pasta or even bread.
As you probably know, an instant version of polenta is available in most supermarkets. Instant polenta is pre-cooked so that it can be made in just a few minutes. This overcomes the long and labor some task that polenta can sometimes be if you desire the creamy comfort food, but don’t have the time to spend overtop the stove.
TRADITIONAL STOVETOP POLENTA
It is important to know that polenta loses its flavor and becomes bitter if it’s stored for a long time in the pantry. Coarsely ground varieties make a thicker polenta; conversely, a finer ground polenta will produce a thinner one. An important tip: the finer ground polenta has more of a tendency to create lumps. A medium ground is polenta preferable for most preparations. Polenta should be cooked in water and no parmigiano should be added.
- Polenta ideally should be cooked in a paiolo - a copper pot made with a rounded, solid bottom - but a regular, big pot with a very thick bottom can be used too. The ratio of water to flour is normally 3:1. Since polenta pops up like lava when it boils, the pot should be only half full of water (at the most) to avoid accidents - but still care must be taken!
- To prepare, bring a pot of salted water to a boil, then add the corn flour a pioggia - which literally means “like rain”, but in practice it means the polenta should be sprinkled lightly by hand over the entire pot of water. Stir with a whisk constantly, then reduce the flame and switch to a wooden spoon and continue stirring. Cook for 40–45 minutes, stirring as often as you can, then use a ladle to serve immediately. Alternatively, pour the polenta onto a large wooden, preferably round, board. This way, leftovers can be later cut in slices and used for other preparations.
- Polenta with Arrabbiata Sauce
- Grilled Polenta with Seared Crimini
- Apple & Fig Polenta Cake
- Polenta Fritta
- Braised Chicken Puttanesca over Polenta
- Layered Polenta Loaf with Italian Sausage & Cheese
- Braised Veal Rollatine with Polenta
- Polenta Cakes with Pancetta & Mozzarella
- Parmesan Polenta Topped with Lemon Sage Steaks