Polenta: peasant food from the north of Italy. It’s texture-y cooked cornmeal, usually served as a bed for a savory stew of some kind or perhaps a fried egg, but also served on its own when doctored up with a little cheese (and/or mushrooms, or various aromatics).
Polenta: occasionally served as a sweet breakfast cereal or even as dessert. When left to cool, it solidifies and you can slice it, and brown the slices, and use it any of the ways mentioned above, and some count it even more delicious. In all these iterations, it’s hearty, homey, satisfying.
Yet, because it’s much less common on American tables than pasta, mashed potatoes or rice, it has a special, undeniable mystique.
Polenta. grits in the U.S. (beloved in the South, often sneered at in the North… sometimes by the same people who’ll pay $25 a plate for the same thing, called “polenta”, at a high-end metropolitan Italian restaurant.).
Polenta: simply cornmeal cooked in water, with a little salt.
But simple does not necessarily mean easy. Polenta has its fine points, as does polenta-making.
Or perhaps “coarse points” is more accurate. The proper texture is knobly, gritty and creamy, variable in the mouth. You get this only with coarse stone-ground whole-grain cornmeal.
You must not use fine-ground cornmeal.
And you must not use refined, fractionated, supermarket “grits”: white, pure starch, even-textured… without the grittiness that makes grits grits.
(Especially, do not use instant grits, or instant grits with added ‘artificial and natural flavor’ butter-flavored. Twin desecration.)
To get the real thing, that rough cornmeal must be fairly freshly ground. When taken home, use it promptly, or seal and freeze it.
I recently happened onto the best polenta cornmeal have ever come across. Purchased at the Putney (Vermont) Farmer’s Market, it was raised, hulled, and ground by the folks at Sweet Pickins Farm, also in Putney (the picture of the hand with the whole corn is courtesy of Sweet Pickins; so a double thank you).
It was from an Italian flint corn, Red Floriani. I carried it home in its unshowy brown bag, popping said bag in a ziplock and freezing it. Saving it for a special occasion.
Polenta’s traditionally cooked over direct heat in a pot, with a whole lot of stirring. Expect that as the cornmeal thickens, there’ll be big hot gallomping bubbles which spit hot cooked cornmeal at you (and your stove). You can easily get burned, and your stove will almost certainly require extra clean-up post-polenta, And let’s don’t even talk about scorched pan-bottoms.
There is an easier way.Here it is, straight from my Passionate Vegetarian.
Once you’ve made polenta in this manner, you will never go back. You’ll thank not only me, but Paula Wolfert, from whom I learned it, and Ed Fleming, from whom she learned it.
That Red Floriani’s special occasion, was dinner last night. And that polenta was be-still-my-heart good. I’d made extra, a good thing; the leftovers were part of breakfast this morning.
But the first step was making the polenta itself, using:
More, the full menu on which we feasted for two meals in a row, follows in the next #dinnerWithDragonwagon.