Polenta, most commonly known as cornmeal mush, is one of the major foods in the Italian Alps where food was simple and sometimes sparse. Although corn came to Italy from Mexico in the 16th century, the origin of the word is far more ancient. It dates from Roman times and is derived from Roman puls, referring to flour milled from spelt or other grains, that was cooked in water until all of the water was absorbed. When it became the consistency of porridge, it was served with various sauces.
The polenta that most people are familiar with today is made from corn, but polenta can also be made with flour milled from spelt, emmer, millet, buckwheat, chestnut, chickpeas, or wheat berries. Once considered rustic food of the poor, cucina povera, its uses are now as refined and varied as the imaginations of modern day chefs.
TYPES OF CORNMEAL
Yellow coarsely ground – bramata oro – is a rough, somewhat gritty polenta with a more pronounced corn flavor. I recommend it for all of the recipes provided here. Yellow fine ground is used to make a finer, smooth polenta with a pudding-like texture. Because of its texture, fine cornmeal thickens faster and is more prone to producing a lumpy polenta.
White cornmeal – is usually ground fine and produces a more delicate polenta, typical of the region of Il Veneto where it is served with baked or broiled fish.
Black polenta – polenta taragna – is made from ground buckwheat or a combination of ground corn and buckwheat. This polenta, a favorite in the region of Lombardia, has a unique and slightly bitter flavor.
“Instant” polenta – is partially cooked yellow polenta and depending on the brand, can be quite good.
“Cooked polenta in a tube/log” –cooked polenta in a vacuum tube should be left on the store shelves.
HOW TO USE POLENTA
Italians serve polenta at least 100 ways, as an antipasto, a main course, a side dish or even breakfast. Unlike pasta it is not always served as a primo (first course). Polenta can be served as an antipasto with drinks when cut into small shapes, fried and served hot with chunks of Parmesan or cubes of mortadella. When slices are fried in oil or brushed with butter and grilled, they become crostini de polenta, delicious crunchy “toasts” which can be served with a tasty topping. As the secondo (main course), polenta is traditionally served on a wooden board topped with a rich meat or fish sauce/ragu. It can also be layered like lasagna and baked with cheeses, vegetables or a meat sauce. Sliced polenta is grilled or fried and served as an accompaniment to meat, game and fish. And don’t forget breakfast and my alternative to pancakes – fry polenta slices in butter until crisp and drizzle with maple syrup.
Basic soft hot polenta: Scoop with a spoon onto plates and top with butter and cheese, a sauce or stew, or vegetables. In the more traditional presentation, polenta would be scraped onto a wooden board, as is or topped with a hearty sauce or stew. When firm enough it can be cut with a knife or cut by sliding a sturdy string (unflavored dental floss) under the polenta, then lifting through it.
Baked polenta: Layer the cooked polenta in a casserole with cheese, cooked vegetables, or thick sauces and bake until bubbling.
Grilled or panfried polenta: Pour polenta into a wet or oiled baking dish, cover with plastic wrap and chill until firm. Invert onto a cutting board and cut into desired shapes. To grill: brush both slices with OO and grill on both sides until heated through. To panfry: heat a small amount of OO or butter in a non-stick sauté pan, add the polenta slices and cook until golden brown and crispy.
- 8 C. water
- 1 T. salt
- 1 1/2 C. coarse cornmeal
In a small saucepan bring 4 C. water with salt to a boil then keep at a simmer, covered over low heat, as back up water.
In a large heavy saucepan, bring the remaining 4 C. water with salt to boil. While stirring with a wooden spoon or whisk, slowly add the cornmeal “a pioggia” falling like rain through your fingers into the salted water. The mixture should be smooth and thick and begin to bubble – “perk”. Reduce the heat to medium-low and continue stirring until the mixture becomes too thick to stir. Add about a cup of the backup water and continue stirring until thick. Continue to do this until the polenta is tender, creamy, and begins to come away from the sides of the pan, about 30-45min. Taste and season for salt.
N.B. Use oven mitts while stirring and be very careful of the perking bubbles, which could easily burn your arm.
Optional: the cooking liquid can be water, milk, broth or a combination.
COLD WATER METHOD
Add the cornmeal into the 4 C. of salted water in the heavy saucepan (not the back-up water), stir/whisk until smooth. Place over medium heat and bring to a boil, stirring constantly for about 10-15 minutes. From that point, follow the basic recipe, adding the backup water as described above.
Yes, by the time you bring the water to a boil for the traditional cooking method, microwave polenta could be almost halfway cooked. This is a favorite method. The texture is just as creamy and smooth as in the traditional method and the taste – quite comparable.
- 7 C. water
- salt (enough to make the water taste a bit salty)
- 1 2/3 C. cornmeal (coarse)
Put all the ingredients into a large microwave safe bowl. Cook on high power, stirring every 10 min. until thick and creamy.
Depending on the wattage of your microwave, the cooking time will vary from 30-45 min.
Optional: Over med-low heat sauté a chopped onion in OO/butter until translucent and soft. Stir this into the polenta water and cornmeal before cooking. The addition of the onions will sweeten the polenta.
Long cooking definitely develops deeper corn flavor and this method pretty much eliminates all of the stirring. This is my most favorite method! Whisk together 2 quarts of water, 2 C. cornmeal, salt and 2 T. butter, pouring it into a well-buttered deep baking dish. Bake it in a 350°F oven for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, give it a good stir, taste and adjust the seasoning, and continue to bake for 10 more minutes.