Feb 7, 2010

Polenta

Polenta is one of those ageless culinary lords, like bread. It has sprung from the hunger of mankind, and without apparent effort has always carried with it a feeling of strength and dignity and well-being.

~M.F.K. Fisher, "How to Cook a Wolf"




Polenta is an ancient Mediterranean dish. The Greeks, Romans and others who lived in Italy in ancient times made puls by cooking farro, millet and other grains or chestnut flour in water or milk, then added legumes, vegetables, eggs and cheese for a complete and nutritious meal. The dish changed after Columbus returned to Europe with corn from the Americas in the 16th century. Corn cultivation expanded to Italy in the 17th century and was rapidly adopted, especially in the Northern regions. Polenta made with corn became a staple of the lower classes, in part because the "new" grain was cheaper than wheat used for bread, but also because of the sense of satiety it provided.

A peasant tradition established the custom of eating polenta on the spianatoia, a large wooden board placed on the common table with all the family gathered around. The polenta was spread in a large circle on the spianatoia, with a single sausage placed in the center–usually the only protein and rich meat available that day. Starting from the outer part, each seated guest proceeded inward consuming the section of polenta in front and tunneling their way to the middle of the table towards the sausage. The race was who could get to the sausage first, wiping the table clean.

That sense of family aggregation has endured. In the 21st century, my mother considers polenta the best food to keep her warm on a cold and rainy winter day. We live in Rome and the climate is mostly mild. She has, however often taken advantage of a providential summer thunderstorm to suggest making polenta. Peering at the light drizzle from the window I have often heard her announce: “Evviva! Perfect day for polenta.” She stirs hers in the mandatory copper cauldron called paiolo, serves it in wooden tray-like dishes that are supposed to keep it warm longer, and seasons each portion with a ladleful of sugo con le salsicce e spuntature (tomato and meat sauce with sausages, see recipe below), and finally sprinkles grated Parmigiano over all.

As we sit there, scoffing in silence, we all secretly pronounce our mental thank you at the sky for the unexpected downpour.

1 liter (4 cups) water
200 g (1 cup) cornmeal
Salt

Bring the salted water to a boil. While constantly stirring with a whisk, slowly add the polenta (cornmeal) trying to avoid forming lumps. Switch to a wooden spoon and reduce the heat to a gentle simmer, and brace yourself: you will be stirring constantly for the next 45 minutes to an hour. Or more. A tall drink might help. And/or nibbling on a chunk of Parmigiano. You must engage in all this stirring in order for the polenta to cook evenly and not burn and stick to the bottom of the pot.

Observe the rhythmic build-up of steam that results in small volcanic explosions. Pl-l-lop! Pl-ll-op! Lovely sound. The polenta is ready when smooth, and no longer granular. When it has finally reached the consistency of oatmeal and slides off the sides of the pot, you can rest your arm for a few minutes. But please don’t let the polenta cool down, you must ladle it steaming hot onto plates (wooden would be best, mamma says) directly from the cooking pot.



As a child I relished the polenta leftovers. Polenta solidifies fast and can be sliced. So now, to bring back gluttonous childhood memories, I usually put thick slices of polenta on the grill and dress each with thin slices of Sardinian Pecorino, smoked mozzarella or caciotta (a mild Italian cow's milk cheese). After removing the collection of lids that are permanently housed in my oven, which always come crushing down noisily when I open the oven door, I bake the polenta until heated through and the cheese sloppily melted.

Another great polenta leftover is crunchy fried polenta sticks, pure solace.


Tip: If you store leftover polenta in a cubic container, it is then easier to cut regularly shaped slices.

* * *

Salsicce e Spuntature
Mamma's tomato, short ribs and sausage rustic sauce is the preeminent polenta partner. A meal intended for hearty appetites and brave digestive systems, a true winter staple.



Assemble the following ingredients while someone takes a shift at stirring the polenta:
2 celery ribs, minced
3 carrots, minced
1 1/2 medium onions, minced
4 fresh bay leaves
250 g (1 1/4 cups) ground veal
250 g (1 1/4 cups) pork short ribs
2 cups canned tomatoes, with their juice
1 cup dry, white wine
250 g (1 1/4 cups) beef stewing meat, cut into 1" chunks
250 g (1 1/4 cups) pork, cut into 1" chunks
250 g (1 1/4 cups) sweet Italian sausage
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
Parmigiano, grated

Heat approximately 1/4 cup of olive oil in a large stewpot. Add the celery, carrot, onion battuto and the bay leaves, and sauté over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium low, add the ground veal and short ribs, and simmer with the vegetables for 10 minutes. Add tomatoes and their juice, and cook uncovered for 15 minutes.

Add the wine, the chunked beef and pork and the sausage, and cook uncovered for 30 more minutes, stirring frequently. Adjust seasoning with salt and ground black pepper. Serve immediately over soft polenta, with lots of grated Parmigiano on top. Place one symbolic sausage in the middle of your serving plank and eat your way to happiness.






35 comments:

  1. I LOVE polenta- and for me, it's true comfort food. They don't call us northerners Polentoni for nothing! Thanks for this wonderful post:)

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  2. I love crunchy polenta sticks!

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  3. yum. hope you are having a wonderful weekend!

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  4. I've never had these before. Sounds fantastic!

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  5. So happy you like polenta, friends! A wonderfully nutritious, local and healthy meal, even for the gluten intolerant and vegetarians (if you omit the sausage and short ribs!). There are many other polenta condiments/toppings to choose from... I see a new post coming up soon.

    Ciao!

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  6. I love buttery polenta! Real comfort food. I just wish it didn't love my thighs quite so much! :-)

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  7. I've tried polenta a few times but wasn't sure if I liked it or not. I think with that delicious-sounding recipe on top of if though I would wolf it down.

    How do you all keep your weight down? I'm such a naturally greedy person that I try not to make things that taste too good - if you know what I mean. I just love eating and have the hips to prove it.

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  8. Thank you for another yummy recipe that I can eat!!!

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  9. Lola,Your making me very hungry! Wonderful job!!

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  10. But the calories, Eleonora! The calories!

    Salsicce his own...

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  11. I love polenta and don't make it often enough. With that wonderful sugo recipe, I feel a party coming on. We have already had more snow this winter than any time in the last 100 years, so the weather is definitely right for it.
    Thank you

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  12. I LOVE polenta. the rest of my family doesn't so i always have leftovers. And I love that book, How to Cook a Wolf is one of my favorites. I have a collection of her books, at Christmas i recieved a first edition copy of A Cordial Water, i love it!
    ciao bella ♥

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  13. Ohhhh I just have to make some Swedish footsteps behind me.

    Your blog is fantastic, me like like!

    Agneta, a swedish one o;)

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  14. Yummy! I love polenta! We had some in France once mixed with some kind of soft cheese , maybe gorganzolla but it was so delish. I've never replicated it, but I try! Love your blog. So beautiful to look at!

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  15. Well, you finally hit upon something I'm not overly fond of eating. Polenta is OK, but I've never been thrilled to find it on my plate. Now, considering how long I've been reading you, that it's taken this long to reach something I don't particularly like is amazing!

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  16. I always forget about polenta but it is so good. Especially with that sauce you made.

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  17. Glad about your response to polenta (even yours, Jim!). I definitely will post more sauces and polenta condiments. One is the gorgonzola one Barbara mentions, a true decadent winter staple.
    Ciao friends...

    Keep stirring,
    Lola xx

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  18. Yum, is right! I've become a fan of polenta over the last few years. I'm looking forward to trying a few of these combination. Thanks, El.

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  19. What a grand post.Polenta warms the heart and body. Soul-food.

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  20. Lola, I don`t think I have ever eaten polenta in my life!! You must come over and bring me some to try. I don`t mind if it`s a left-over. Liebe Grüße von Angela

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  21. ,Your making me very hungry! Wonderful job!!

    Work from home India

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  22. You made me smile! I consider this as my comfort food since this is what my mother likes making.

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  23. Mark Bittman in the NYTimes this weekend posted the most disgusting polenta recipe I have ever seen. He suggested making a slurry of the grain and water and then adding more water, only stirring occasionally. It sounded so awful, I wanted to up-chuck; nothing like your glorious heart-warming recipe.

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  24. No polenta is better than bad polenta, in my opinion. Glad you found this one superior to Bittman's... wow, I'm blushing! ;)

    I'll be posting more polenta dressings soon, so stay tuned.

    Ciao!

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  25. Lola, you can see that I'm catching up on my favourite blogs.
    I love polenta, but have never made it. It sounds perfect for some of our "summer" days here in Ireland.
    I love how you say "after removing the collection of lids that are permanently housed in my oven"- sounds like my kitchen- my oven houses a collection of baking sheets!

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  26. I've updated the Polenta series, care to taste THREE more toppings?

    Ciao
    E xx

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  27. ah, so this is where i am to come!

    OMG! i scrolled down and saw the pizza--i am salivating! i will love your love of food. italian food especially.

    i am always to glad to meet someone who has enjoyed, loved, and laughed with ms. renee. i'm glad she will visit you in dreams. would you please tell her kj said she will keep in touch with angelique, make sure her children know that the love from their mother is everlasting.

    sob. i'll stop that now and just say nice to meet you. you are welcome at my place anytime.

    love
    kj

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  28. May be it's very good for me & Thank you for another yummy recipe that I can eat !!!

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  29. This Italy made is very YUMMY !
    I Love it

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  30. Large Wall Mirrors Gal~
    thank you! I'm glad you enjoy this. Polenta season is upon us again, and I can't wait!!

    Ciao

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  31. I've never made polenta. But it's never too late with such wonderful recipes.

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  32. Rosaria~
    And it's healthy too (not counting some dressings...) Try it and tell me how your hubby liked it.

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  33. It looks so delicious. I never tried eating them. I will try to prepare at home.

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