The Perfect Polenta

Thursday, June 9, 2011

Golden. Creamy. Lightly flavored with nutty parmesan cheese. Polenta is one of those La Bella Vita foods. It's simple but requires skill to make. It's "peasant food" that can rival a rib-eye. Some call it polenta. Others call it "mamaliga." While still others, obviously under influence of Disney, call it "porridge." I call it...


I grew up with polenta. If you're Italian, you certainly know what it is. If you're Romanian, you have a love-hate relationship with it. If you were friends with an Italian or Romanian growing up, you knew it as "corn mush" and were first perplexed by the consistency, unsure of the first bite, and as you grew older learned to be just as obsessed about it as I am now. And in your adult years, as restaurants charge an obscene amount of money for a side of polenta, to satisfy the craving you try to make it yourself. You go the store and pick up a log of polenta and bring it home. You're puzzling through it, as it is not the creamy hot goodness you know. You get frustrated and create something horrendous and feel defeated, stinging with the pain in your heart you cannot taste that first bite of polenta.

I am here to fix that. I am here to teach you. To educate you as to what polenta is, how to properly make it, and how to enjoy it in its many, many forms. Yes, polenta at first glance seems like a piping hot bowl of yellow mush. But it's much more than that. Add sharp, salty feta cheese, onions, and spicy sausage for a Romanian style casserole that is To. Die. For. Add tender green leaves like spinach and arugula for a gorgeous take on the classic. Slice it and fry it then top it with sauteed mushrooms. Infuse it with different cheeses and herbs. Or serve it the classic style -- golden and creamy, piping hot next to crispy fried fish or meats.

I told you polenta was heaven.

Let's begin with the basics, shall we? What the hell is polenta anyway?

Polenta is a dish made using boiled cornmeal. The cornmeal can be yellow or white (or blue) depending on the type of corn was used. The corn is ground into a course consistency, called "meal." It can be ground rather large, producing a grittier consistency, medium, fine, or very, very fine which then resembles more flour. It is this very finely ground cornemal that is used in dishes such as arepas or to make corn tortillas.

Although polenta is synonymous with Italian food, it takes just a little historical knowledge to realize that it is not an  dish. Corn is indigenous to the Americas, and did not make its way into Europe until the 15th and 16th centuries during the colonization of the New World. However, "polenta" as a dish dates back to ancient Roman times. Ancient polenta was made using farro, chestnuts, chickpeas, and millet or spelt. The process of extracting the germ and grinding it was itentical to the process of making course cornmeal. This meal was then boiled and stirred until softened and creamy, and minimally flavored with aromatics or salt. In Roman times, ground anchovies in fact were the primary source for salt, so most likely that was used. Some ground pepper (or birds of paradise which is black peppercorn's cousin), perhaps a little fresh herbs if they were inseason and readily available, and voila! Polenta was born. So basically the ingredients have changed, but the process and cooking method have not.

In terms of the maize, once the New World brought with it new-found riches especially of the culinary kind, the soil and temperature of northern Italy found itself to be perfectly suited to grow maize (corn). Adapting their ancient technique to the new ingredienet, polenta as we know it today in Italy was born. And it continues to be a staple food in Northern Italy to this very day, out numbering pasta dishes 2:1. It is from the north the classic polenta-stew dish was born. Northern Italians with their closer proximity to central Europe and cooler climates favored meat-centered dishes richened with root vegetables. Classic braises, roasts, and hearty stews were born there for the Italian cuisine. In place of pasta which was more favored in the south (along with tomato-based sauces because of the more temperate climate condusive to growing tomatoes), polenta snuck in as the traditional side dish to these meat-centere courses. To this day, a classic dish of stewed rabbit or even ossobuco will be served with polenta, rather than rice or pasta.

Other countries influenced by the Roman Empire continue the polenta tradition. Corsica in France in fact still makes pulenta, made very traditionally using ground chestnut flour. As you move east the Austrians make a polenta sweetened with some sugar and served for breakfast with coffee. Still further east, in Romania, Bulgaria and parts of Ukraine and western most Russia they make polenta much like the norther Italians do, using maize but a stiffer version. This kind is meant to be practically solidified and cut like a loaf a bread, obviously an ingenious substitution to the more expensive yeast-based breads. Still further east in Turkey and as far south as Africa you find polenta made with chickpeas and ancient grains, in the exact same way as was done thousands of years ago.

This is one of the reasons I love this dish. With every bite you can taste the history of it. A journey from the New World to Old Europe, from as far west as France to as far east and Africa and Turkey, even trasncending time as you prepared and are eating the very same dish someone in a village in northern Italy did 500 years ago. It's fascinating to me. So important to keep these traditions alive, to learn about what we are eating and how and why the dish survived. Polenta, simple polenta, helped sustain the poorest of people over thousands of years. It fed the legions of Rome as they conquered half of the world. It provided a muse for Northern Italian farmers as they excitedly explored working with a completely foreign ingredient from a place half a world away.

This is why I eat and research and write this blog! But back to the polenta. How do we make it?

For purposes of polenta, you want to choose cornmeal that is ground course to fine, depending on the dish you wish to prepare and the region the dish is coming from. Romanians and other Eastern Europeans tend to use a courser ground, which produces a thicker polenta; Italians use a finer ground which produces a thinner, creamier consistency. So keep that in mind when choosing your cornmeal at the market.

medium ground polenta, perfect to make smoother or more solid variations

Second, you want the proper tools to cook with. Traditionally polenta was made in big stone pots. God, if I could manage to get my hands on such a thing to make authentic polenta! For now, a good ceramic pot will do. I've made polenta in steel pots but for some reason, it always seems to taste better when I make it in a ceramic one like a Dutch oven. It's not a requirement, but if you've got one then use it. And you need two tools in particular to stir with: a good long-handled whisk and sturdy wooden spoon. At first you will whisk the polenta for maximum water aborption, and then switch to the wooden spoon. I recommend you get both with longer handles if possible, since polenta tends to bubble. A lot.

Now that you've got the proper polenta to work with and tools, we can talk about flavor!

I've made many, many polentas over the years. Again, growing up with the dish (mamaliga for those of you not paying attention) I'm quite sensitive to the various versions and preparations. For this posting, I'll share with you my full proof, 100% amazing Italian style polenta recipe. It's light golden in color, creamy from the fine ground cornmeal and cream (yes I said cream), subtly flavored from the broth I use in place of water (yes I said broth) and finally finsished off with romano cheese. It's balanced, creamy, piping hot, and the perfect side dish. If you can make it that far. I usually end up eating it just by itself it's so good!

Creamy Italian Style Polenta
3 cups chicken broth (or vegetable)
1 cup half n half  (or heavy cream or whole milk, but I do most prefer the combo of half n half)
1 cup fine ground polenta (cornmeal)
1 tsp kosher salt
1/3 cup finely grated romano cheese

Place the chicken broth in a large ceramic pot and bring to a boil. Once boiling, add the cornmeal all at once and the salt, and start whisking. Continuing to whisk, bring the polenta back up to a boil. Once boiling, immediately reduce the heat down to low. Cook for 10 minutes, whisking often to prevent sticking to the bottom of the pan. Add the half n half and whisk to mix in. Once the half n half is incorporated in, switch to the wooden spoon and continue to cook another 10-15 minutes stirring often until the polenta is thick and creamy. As the polenta cooks, the natural starches begin to release -- this is what make the polenta a creamy consistency.

Once you've achieved the proper consistency, taste the polenta (careful - it's hot!) and make sure the polenta is tender. If it tastes gritty then add more broth and continue to cook until the gritty texture is smoothed out (add the broth in 1/2 cup increments if needed). Adjust the polenta with salt to taste (the saltiness will depend on the type of broth you used) and then remove from heat. Add the cheese all at once and mix in. Serve piping hot.

My Notes:
Polenta is an extremely forgiving dish. If you find the polenta tastes too gritty, simply add more liquid. If it tastes too thin, add more polenta. You can play with the ratio to achieve your desired consistency and texture.

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