As soon as the weather gets nippy in Rome (we’ve had a total of 4 days of actual cold temperatures in 2016) I immediately make 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 among the most traditional winter dishes of northern Italy, and a very versatile one at that. Polenta is the perfect match for meats, fish, cheese and rich sauces like ragout. Cooking proper polenta is a delicate architecture made up of time, corn flour, water, the right cooking vessel and salt.
The Italian term polenta comes from the Latin, puls. The origin of polenta, like its name is ancient. In the Middle Ages it was originally a puree of fava beans cooked in oil with onions and sometimes added with ground cereal such as buckwheat or spelt.
Polenta has always been a humble food, even when the broadbeans were later replaced by corn flour. In the 18th century it became a typical dish of the northern, marshy regions of Italy as a starchy substitute of bread, as a filling side to proteins, either in its creamy state, or sliced and then grilled or fried. Many generations who fed exclusively on maize for extended periods started suffering from a Vitamin deficiency called pellagra.
Nowadays – like many peasant foods – polenta is enjoying success as a popular food trend. Like all Italian traditional foods, there have been volumes written on how to best prepare it at home. Here are our 5 tips for perfect polenta.
Give it time
Polenta is a dish that requires patience. To cook well, to become a soft and velvety accompaniment to stewed meats, savory fish roast or a malty cheese, polenta needs time. After pouring the corn flour in the pot with water and salt, my mother’s secret to obtaining a smooth result with no lumps is mixing it with a wire whip slowly and patiently as it slowly cooks. If you can do this for at least an hour, your polenta will be applause-worthy.
Choose the right corn flour
For the past 400 years, polenat has been prepared with coarsely ground corn. For a more intense flavor, northern Italians choose a whole grain corn flour variety. Buckwheat flour can also be used to make polenta, like they do in the Alpine valleys and villages near Sondrio, in the Lombardy region. It’s a darker flour that will render a brownish polenta that’s less creamy and more suited for mature cheeses of the area (more on that in another post, stay tuned). The latest craze is a polenta called “taragna” which is a blend of corn flour and buckwheat flour. It’s delicious! In the Veneto region, the local polenta is made with a particular white corn flour. This is paired with cuttlefish (and its black ink) and baccalà (creamed cod). But polenta is not exclusive to northern Italy: in the southern regions of Campania and Puglia, polenta is made with fine grain corn flour – and commonly fried and sold in the street.
Use the right pot
There’s a reason why polenta has always been cooked in the paiolo, a typical northern Italian large copper or cast iron pot. The diffused heat allows the corn flour to cook evenly. Any other pot (alluminum, steel, earthenware) will eventually get the job done, but it won’t be the same thing, I assure you. The paiolo traditionally had a loose handle because in the past polenta was cooked in the fireplace, hung on a special iron rod. Times and cooking facilities have changed obviously, but cooking polenta in a copper pot hasn’t.
Nail the water and flour ratio
Only polenta veterans can afford to cook this dish using an approximate ratio of water and flour. Every one else should follow the rules: a gallon of water for every kilo (2.2 lbs) of corn flour. Consider however that the more the flour is coarse, the more it will absorb water during cooking. That means that if you’re using buckwheat, you’ll need to add a little more water. For 4 people, 500 g (1.1 lbs) of corn flour should be sufficient.
Do not go with a heavy hand when seasoning your polenta. There is no exact quantity of salt that needs to be added to the water as it warms on the stove, but eating an oversalted polenta is awful, it could make all that hard work go to waste! Especially if you’ll be pairing it with bold cheeses, or a slow cooked meat dish. The best advice is season polenta lightly. It can always be added later.
Now that you have perfected your polenta skills, what can you pair it with?
Pair creamy yellow polenta with porcini trifolati! Mushrooms are always a good idea, especially now, funghi peak season!
Slow cooked pot roasts are the big thing now. Add some polenta to the stew and prepare to serve lots of helpings.
Fish stews like bouillabaisse and and zuppa di pesce. Slice solid leftover polenta, grill it and use that instead of crutons…
Have you ever tried polenta and caponata? You should.
Grilled polenta and sausages: a mighty fine Italian barbecue.
My favorite: polenta pasticciata, topped with oozy gorgonzola and grated parmigiano. In the Valle d’Aosta region the cheese of choice is Fontina.
How do you like to eat polenta?
Eleonora Baldwin is a TV host, journalist, and culinary connoisseur based in Rome, Italy. Her writing appears in several food and travel publications. Her show “ABCheese” is broadcast on Italian food network Gambero Rosso. She loves guiding culturally curious, food-passionate travellers seeking experiences in Italy beyond the guidebook.