Polenta, a Specialty of Northern Italy

In northern Italy, polenta is a popular staple. Learn how to cook polenta and enjoy it as an appetizer, a first course, a main course, or even as a dessert. For those just acquainting themselves with polenta many are surprised by its versatility.

polenta with vegetables corn grits pizza with tomato eggplant
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History of Polenta

Corn and rice are both water-intensive crops—they do not grow well in arid climates. In Italy they are grown “north of the river,” that is, north of the Po River, where the snowmelt from the Alps provides water for agriculture. These regions are primarily the provinces of Piemonte, Lombardia, the Veneto, and Friuli. It is in these provinces that we find the home of both risotto and polenta.

For the people who historically resided in these regions corn and rice were major components of their diets. Polenta, especially, is so completely identified with the cuisine of these regions that its residents are known as “polentoni” that is, “polenta eaters.” In slang, this designation can also be pejorative to mean “dim-witted.” A similar term shows up in southern Italy where the name “terrone” or a worker of the terra, the land, has the same connotation.

Being of Piemontese and Friulano heritage I grew up eating polenta. To this day I still prefer a great polenta to pasta. The vast majority of Italian immigrants to America were from the area between Naples and Sicily, the wheat-growing region of Italy, where dried pastas made up the base carbohydrate of the diet; as the poorest region of Italy economically, it was therefore the area from which people emigrated in search of a better life. Northern Italy was always much more industrialized and more prosperous. So while most Italian-Americans today know of polenta, it was not a great staple back home. This is unfortunate as polenta can be prepared in many ways and provide an intriguing range of tastes and dining experiences.

Polenta VS Grits

It is a mistake to equate polenta with grits—a common comparison here in America due to the popularity of grits in our southern cuisine. Grits are usually made from finely ground white corn whereas polenta is usually made from coarsely ground yellow corn. (Coarsely ground yellow cornmeal is often labeled as “polenta” in our grocery stores.) The similarities end there as polenta is not equal to “corn mush” but is a cooking technique resulting in a porridge, called “puls” in ancient Roman times. Corn didn’t come to be grown in Europe until Columbus brought it over in 1493 from the Americas; historically, polenta was made from ground or milled barley, fava beans, chestnuts, spelt, farro, millet or chickpeas, among others, and you will still find non-corn-based versions in restaurants in various regions of Italy.

How to Cook Polenta: the Basics

Many are surprised by its versatility when they learn how to cook polenta. The basic recipe for polenta is a simple ratio: one part ground corn (or other grain or legume) to three or four parts liquid. Then the fun begins. What liquid and how much? The devotees of polenta desiring the most “corn-forward” flavor believe polenta must be made with water (i.e. one cup ground corn to three cups water). For a polenta with a wider range of flavors, broth can be used instead of water but in the same proportion: one cup ground grain to three cups broth. Those who yearn for a richer flavor will substitute milk or half-and-half for a portion of the water or broth. And then there are those who will work in half a cup of wine, marsala or vermouth into the liquid portion; this provides an acid balance which tickles the flavor receptors on one’s tongue. My own basic recipe is one cup of polenta, three cups chicken broth, a large pat of butter, a large handful of grated parmesan, a pinch of salt, and half a cup of wine or marsala. For even more flavors add some precooked ground sausage, chopped herbs, or diced precooked mushrooms. You can make the polenta as savory as you desire.

There is often the criticism that polenta is too labor-intensive, that “you have to sit and stir it for an hour,” but that is an old wives’ tale. When the polenta pot was a copper pot hung over an open fire, the heat source was uneven and varied so it was necessary to cook the polenta longer to get it to become creamy and tender. Today with modern stoves you prepare polenta in 20 minutes, more or less, depending upon whether you wish it softer (pourable, or as a base for savory sauces) or firmer (cut into pieces and grilled, for example). The finished texture and amount of cooking time is up to you. I completely avoid the constant stirring by making polenta in a microwave where it can be finished in as little as 6 or 7 minutes or up to 15 minutes, depending upon the thickness desired and the overall quantity. In a microwave, half a cup of polenta to two cups of liquid, for example, will cook much faster than two cups of polenta plus six or more cups of liquid. (You can see how quantity extends the cooking time.) Stir it halfway through the cooking time so all of the ground corn does not congregate at the bottom of the cooking dish. You can make it in the microwave easily in a Pyrex measuring cup or bowl of appropriate size, or a ceramic soufflé dish. If your polenta gets too firm for what you desire, add some more liquid, stir and cook until absorbed. If it is too thin, cook it a little longer.

So Many Ways to Enjoy It

The best part, of course, is how to enjoy the polenta. My grandmother would put leftover polenta in the refrigerator and let it firm up overnight. She would then grill it in a cast iron pan and serve it with maple syrup and pouched eggs the following morning. That was one of my Dad’s favorites. As an appetizer, pour the polenta into a shallow baking pan, bake it until firm, cut it into squares, and top the squares with chopped tomatoes (think bruschetta), anchovies, melted cheese, diced prosciutto, or chopped olive spread. It makes a wonderful set of finger food appetizers. For a first course, serve portions of soft polenta into a pasta bowl and top with a melting cheese (taleggio or fontina, ground parmesan, ground pepper and chopped herbs). It takes the place of the pasta course. As a main course, use it instead of rice or pasta as a base over which you serve braised beef or chicken cacciatore or even stewed codfish. Aa a side dish with a steak, grill pieces and serve on the side in place of potatoes. One of the simplest presentations for an easy light meal is to pour cooked polenta onto a board firm enough so that it can be cut with a string, and serve it with a salad and some prosciutto and cheeses.

Polenta is so versatile and so delicious! Create your own version and enjoy.

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Contributor: © Ronald Fenolio, CEO, Veedercrest Estates

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