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"
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 gr (1 cup) cornmeal
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.
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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 gr (1 1/4 cups) ground veal
250 gr (1 1/4 cups) pork short ribs
2 cups canned tomatoes, with their juice
1 cup dry, white wine
250 gr (1 1/4 cups) beef stewing meat, cut into 1” chunks
250 gr (1 1/4 cups) pork, cut into 1” chunks
250 gr (1 1/4 cups) sweet Italian sausage
Extra virgin olive oil
Salt and ground black pepper, to taste
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.