When the young teen superstar Mozart arrived in the Trentino region to play his first Italian gig, they had to call out the guards to protect him from being mobbed by fans. The Justin Bieber of his day, Mozart stayed in Rovereto, a small town that straddled the then-Italian-Austrian border. We don’t know what he played in the beautiful Baroque church, (a bratty show-off, he often improvised as he went along), but it’s a good bet that afterward he dined on polenta, polenta and more polenta.
Polenta vs. pasta
Polenta is to the far north of Italy what pasta is to the rest, and it is widely eaten throughout Trentino-Alto Aldige, Lombardy, Piedmont, Veneto, as well as in Tuscany. At one time smart Italian restaurants would not have been caught dead serving polenta, il cibo della miseria, the food of poverty. Basically it is a sort of thick porridge made from maize (corn) and water, and for centuries was a staple, belly filling food for impoverished rural people. Put that way, it sounds less than glamorous. Tell the folks today they’re getting gruel or grits — not buying into a slice of dolce vita lifestyle along with the Balsamic and sun-dried tomatoes — and you’re not going to sell a lot of packets. For many consumers, it’s still a case of overpriced and over-hyped.
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Nonetheless, the wheel of polenta fortune has turned, and it has morphed into a fashionable food accessory, presented as elegant crispy triangles, diamonds and squares, as well as a smooth, buttery puree.
At its best, polenta can have a slightly nutty, sweet-corn-like taste, but essentially it is a carrier of other flavors and textures, a backdrop for sauces and a foil for meats, vegetables, fungi or cheese. It is remarkably versatile, served hot, cold, firm, supple or sloppy, thin or thick, or two fingers wide. Leftovers can be baked, fried or grilled. It can also be sweetened with sugar and cinnamon or used in cakes and pastries.
There are hundreds of regional recipes, but at its simplest, all that’s needed is butter and grated Parmesan or Grana Padano to transform a dull dish into something altogether more special. It is a country food made good.
Polenta, the old-fashioned way
There is something magical about the way polenta turns from a dull grain into a golden slice.
Making polenta the old-fashioned way is as good as a workout at the gym. Polenta is traditionally cooked in an unlined copper pan called a paiolo. The salted water must boil furiously in a vortex created by swirling the water clockwise (the reverse may well be the case in the southern hemisphere, if plugholes are anything to go by).
The cornmeal is added in a slow, steady drizzle (a pioggia, as if it were raining), then stirred vigorously (great for the biceps) with a bastone in the same direction for about 40 minutes lest it catch or congeal into hard lumps. The bastone, or wooden stirring stick, needs to be long, as polenta has a nasty habit of spitting viciously as it cooks. Once it becomes a cohesive mass, like a bubbling yellow swamp, it is poured onto a wooden board or even a scrubbed kitchen table, and cut with a wooden knife or long thread.
If you don’t have a paiolo, then it’s unlikely you will also have a big fireplace hearth with a cooking crane on which to hang your pot. Despair not — any large, heavy pot that gives an even heat will do, and it’s even possible to buy electric polenta makers with paddles a little like ice cream machines.
When looking for polenta to buy, consider the Molino Spadoni brand: Fioretto Polenta is yellow and fine-grained and becomes beautifully creamy; Bramata Polenta is thicker and more granular and produces a more rustic polenta.
Contemporary cheats, however, use instant polenta: The maize flour is steamed and pre-cooked, added to boiling water, stock or milk, and is ready within minutes. Valsugana is a popular instant brand in Italy.
Anna del Conte recommends another cooking method in “The Classic Food of Northern Italy”: cook it in a pressure cooker or the oven. Del Conte has also endorsed a revolutionary approach, at least in purist polenta circles, in which the polenta is added all at once to cold water.
Polenta: The five-minute method
Follow instructions on the instant polenta packet, adding extra hot liquid if you like your polenta on the runny side. Use stock or milk and water in place of just water if preferred for extra flavor.
Stir in a generous amount of butter and Parmesan to make a mash-cum-puree. Either serve as is or pour into a greased loaf pan and let cool until firm. Slice it thickly, brush with olive oil, and fry or grill until brown and nicely toasted.
Grilled Polenta With Fontina
Prep time: 15 minutes
Total time: 30 minutes
Yield: 4 servings, as an appetizer
3 to 4 plum tomatoes, diced or roughly chopped
Salt and coarsely ground black pepper
12 slices of firm, cooked polenta (about ¾ cup uncooked)
1 to 2 tablespoons olive oil
1 cup Fontina cheese, shredded or sliced
Fresh basil leaves, shredded
1. Mix the tomatoes, salt and pepper together and set aside.
2. Brush both sides of the polenta slices with olive oil. Broil under a medium heat for 5 minutes or until one side is golden. Turn the slices over and top with the cheese.
3. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the cheese melts.
4. Place on serving plates and serve, topped with the tomatoes and shredded basil leaves.
Baked Polenta With Italian Sausages, Mushrooms and Cheese
Prep time: 40 minutes (plus chilling for several hours or overnight)
Total time: 60 minutes
Yield: 4 servings, as a main course
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil
1 small onion, chopped
2 large garlic cloves, crushed
1 red pepper, cored, seeded and diced
2 Italian sausages with fennel seeds, casing removed, crumbled
2 cups mushrooms, chopped
3/4 cup of polenta (cornmeal)
1 tablespoon fresh, chopped parsley, plus extra for serving
Pinch of cayenne pepper
½ cup ricotta cheese
1 cup grated Gruyere cheese
Salt and pepper
1/4 stick butter, diced
2 tablespoons grated Parmesan cheese
1. Heat olive oil in a frying pan and lightly sauté the onion, garlic and red pepper.
2. Add the crumbled sausage and cook until the meat starts to change color.
3. Add the mushrooms and cook for another five minutes, then set aside.
4. Cook the polenta according to the packet instructions. When it is ready, remove from the heat and stir in the parsley, a pinch of cayenne pepper, the ricotta and Gruyere cheese. Add the sausage and sweet pepper mixture, fold in well, season with salt and pepper.
5. Pour the mixture into a shallow, round dish that has been lined with plastic wrap. Cool, then cover and chill for a few hours or overnight.
6. When ready to serve, preheat the oven to 190 C. Use the plastic wrap to remove the polenta onto a board. Cut the polenta into wedges and place into an oiled shallow roasting dish, large enough to hold the polenta in one layer without crowding.
7. Dot with the diced butter and sprinkle with the Parmesan cheese. Bake 15 to 20 minutes, or until the polenta is golden.
8. Garnish with chopped fresh parley, serve with a good tomato sauce.
Main photo: Grilled Polenta With Fontina and diced tomatoes can be made in about 30 minutes, if you use instant polenta. Credit: Clarissa Hyman
Centuries of polenta
1. The culinary ancestor of polenta was pulmentum, a grain paste made from farro, a kind of spelt, in the form of either a hard cake or soft porridge. It was a staple for the legionnaires of ancient Rome.
2. Before maize was introduced to Italy from America in the 17th century, polenta was made using wheat, barley, oats, millet, chestnut flour or buckwheat. The last two are still used in parts of Tuscany as well as in Valtellina and other Alpine valleys.
3. When the new grain was unloaded in Venice, it would usually have come via Turkey. It is still sometimes called granoturco or Turkish corn in Italy.
4. Not all polenta flour is egg-yolk gold. In the Veneto, it is often made from special, extra-fine white maize, polentina bianca, and is so thin it is spooned rather than cut.
5. In parts of the Trento and Piedmont, black maize flour may be mixed with buckwheat to make polenta nera or polenta taragna.
6. There are also different gradings of polenta. Strictly speaking, the right degree of coarseness should be chosen for each dish. Coarse ground to go with rich meat and tomato sauces, sausages or salt cod; the finer variety for more delicate dressings of cheese, milk, butter or wild mushrooms. Either way, stone-ground polenta is worth seeking out for its more complex, extra-nutty taste.