POLENTA

A historically delicious, nutritious dish

Polenta is delicious on its own or as an accompaniment to sauces, stews and leftovers. Here crispy polenta fingers are shown with a ragu of leftovers–in this case, butternut squash and bacon.

 

Story and photos by Katherine Larson

Ah, winter! Snow! Skiing and snowshoeing and ice-fishing! And then, for supper, something hot and nourishing and delicious to help us thaw out.
Polenta is this month’s candidate for that hot, nourishing, delicious dish. Tasty on its own, it becomes even better with one of the myriad accompaniments that make it utterly delicious.
Utterly delicious seems an odd description for what has been unkindly called an Italian version of cornmeal mush. Yet it’s apt, as you may already know or as you’ll find when you try it. And, anyway, what’s wrong with cornmeal mush? Humans have been nourished for thousands of years on warming porridges made from ground grain.
It started at least 9,000 years ago. In Mesopotamia, people domesticated grains like barley and wheat; at the same time, in the Americas, people domesticated corn.
As for Italy, archaeological finds from Sardinia include barley and the tools for making it into mush from at least 5,000 years ago. The ancient Romans liked spelt but also used millet, farro, chestnut flour, and chickpea flour. Buckwheat arrived in the area from Asia in the 13th century and was promptly incorporated into the region’s polenta, a word which arrived into Italian through Latin which in turn got it from Proto-Indo-European. This dish has been around a long time.
Then came the 16th century and the tidal wave of cultural and culinary exchanges across the oceans. This wave included corn, one of the great gifts to other continents from the original Americans.
When Italians received corn they promptly put it to use in polenta. This was especially true among the poor, for whom it became daily fare. So much so, alas, that pellagra—a disease based on nutritional deficiency—became widespread, because Europeans failed to adopt the Native Americans’ practice of cooking their corn with an alkaline that unlocked the niacin and amino acids in the kernel. That process is called nixtamalization, from the Aztecs’ Nahuatl language; when the ingredients on your bag of tortilla chips include “corn treated with lime,” the corn has been nixtamalized. In some countries pellagra remains a problem; where people can afford a more varied diet, it’s not an issue.
Northern Italy especially, but also southern Switzerland, Croatia, Slovenia, Romania—yes, Romania too; read the original Dracula novel and you’ll find mention of “a sort of porridge of maize flour”—all these countries developed cuisine based on corn polenta, to the point where southern Italians gave their northern compatriots the name polentoni, intending it as an insult.
Me, I disagree. How can it be an insult to eat something so delicious?
But before you eat it, you have to make it.
As a child, I was privileged to include in my household a Swiss who made her polenta the old-fashioned way: by stirring stone-ground cornmeal in simmering water for at least an hour. (A perfectionist Swiss would have insisted on a copper pot, a hazelwood stirring stick, and an open fire to give the concoction a gently smoky aroma.)
When I grew up, therefore, I believed that polenta was beyond me. In my busy young adulthood, no way could I find an hour available to stir mush; in my less busy older years, no way could my gimpy shoulder stand that much sustained effort.
It therefore came as a great revelation, indeed a blessing, when I stumbled across Lynn Rossetto Kasper’s book The Italian Country Table: Home Cooking from Italy’s Farmhouse Kitchen (Scribner 1999). There, in its now well-loved and sauce-stained pages, I found my way to polenta nirvana with nary a hazelwood stick or aching shoulder.
Start with cooking liquid and cornmeal.
What liquid should you use? For most purposes, water is just fine. A rich homemade chicken broth or vegetable stock adds more flavor, but if you plan to top your finished polenta with one of the myriad delectable sauces or stews that can accompany the dish, it’s unnecessary to add extra oomph.
What cornmeal should you use? Here, it’s important to be fussy. Quick-cooking cornmeal is flavorless; avoid it. Regular fine-textured cornmeal cooks up gluey; avoid it too. Look for a coarser grind, with bits of grain about the size of uncooked couscous, and as fresh as possible. Your friendly local bulk store carries it as “polenta”; so does the local Italian deli.
Then, you need a makeshift double-boiler. (Or a real one, if you have one. I don’t.)
You’ll want a metal bowl that will fit snugly over a pot. Fill the pot about a third full of water and bring it to a lively simmer. This will serve as the bottom part of the double-boiler; the bowl will serve as the top part.

 

A double-boiler is quite useful when making polenta. If you’re like At The Table author Katherine Larson and you don’t own one, she teaches you how to create a makeshift double-boiler with a metal bowl, a pot and foil.

Put cornmeal into the bowl with a little salt. Using a kettle or other pot, bring your cooking liquid—three parts liquid to one part cornmeal—to a boil and slowly pour the liquid into the cornmeal, whisking to remove lumps. Cover the bowl tightly with foil and place it over the simmering bottom pot. Let everything sit there for 1-1/2 to 2 hours. Especially if you’re making a big batch, stir it a few times in the first half hour; after that, it can just sit.
Sure, time passes—the passage of time is necessary to ensure full flavor and tenderness—but you aren’t chained to the stove. The polenta cooks away happily on its own, while you enjoy the rest of your life.
What do you do with the polenta when it’s cooked?
To begin with, I like to prepare a double batch; the first half I’ll serve out of the pot, right onto eaters’ plates, as a creamy base for whatever stew or sauce or ragout I made. While the other half is still soft and creamy, I’ll pour it onto a buttered or oiled surface and let it cool and solidify for future frying.
Toppings range from the incredibly simple (stir a big handful of freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese and maybe a dab of butter into the polenta pot, then serve) to the incredibly complex (use a flavorful puddle of polenta as a base under some fancy dish that needs an Italianate foundation under the concoction that kept you hard at it all day in the kitchen). Here are a few ideas for in between:
Mushroom ragout. Get as much as you can of the best mushrooms you can—wild, if possible. If not possible, get whatever you can: portobello, or crimini, or even supermarket white. Cut them into thickish pieces and sauté them well in olive oil or butter or a mix of the two.
We’re going to be persnickety for a moment here. It’s too easy to fill your pan with too many mushrooms, and it does them a disservice: they steam instead of sautéing, and you lose that wonderful deep meaty quality that makes mushrooms such a treat. With this dish, mushrooms function as the anchor to the whole meal, and they deserve to shine. Take the trouble to give them enough room to sauté to a good crispy brown and they will repay you in flavor. If that means that they have to be cooked in two or even three batches, so be it.
Transfer the sautéed mushrooms into a bowl to wait until all their fellows are cooked, then use the same pan to sauté up some sliced onions and plenty of garlic along with thyme, salt and pepper. Add the mushrooms back in, along with half a cup of a good crisp white wine or dry sherry to deglaze the pan and help you scrape up all those flavorful brown bits, then pour it all over polenta. Glorious.
Italian sausages and peppers. We are lucky enough to have local sources of delicious Italian sausages, mild or spicy. Buy some. Cut them into inch-long chunks. Sauté them with onions and green bell peppers, perhaps in a little olive oil if you buy the lean variety that I prefer but otherwise in their own fat. Add a shower of freshly minced garlic about a minute before pouring this yummy combination over and around the piping-hot mound of polenta. Dig in.
For the second batch of polenta, the one that gets fried, it’s hard to do better than simply cutting the solidified polenta into strips, sprinkling them with salt and pepper, and sautéing them in butter or olive oil. As a crispy treat on its own, this was one of the joys of my childhood. It also works well as the accompaniment to one of your good sauces or stews or accumulation of tasty leftovers.
Ragú of leftovers. What treasures lurk in your fridge? For me, it was roasted winter squash. So tasty! But there is such a lot of it! If you’re not feeding a crowd, leftover squash reminds me of Dorothy Parker’s definition of eternity: “two people and a ham.” So too can it be with squash, and so I felt when I looked in the refrigerator and saw a good pound or more staring back at me reproachfully.
But I also had some cold polenta that I could fry up into crispy polenta strips, and I remembered another suggestion from The Italian Country Table, this one for squash with sage. And, while I had no fresh sage, I did have a few leftover strips of bacon.
So I sliced up a couple of onions, browning them well in a bit of bacon fat then adding the bacon, broken into bites. It all sizzled in the pan while I cut the squash into cubes, which I tossed in to crisp up along with some freshly-ground pepper. Finally, a good splash of vinegar—balsamic for more sweetness, red wine vinegar for more tang—helped deglaze the pan. With those crispy polenta strips: yum.
We ate it in front of the fire, having spent all of ten minutes at the stove preparing this supper of leftovers. Whatever bounty your own refrigerator offers, this sort of meal is mighty comforting after a day in the snow.
Whether you try one of these ideas or use your own favorite (maybe a rich pork stew, with a nod back to Italians’ traditional use of wild boar in polenta e cinghiale), do give polenta a go. Through February’s wintry blasts, its warm, corn-y goodness will comfort and sustain you.

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