Gastronomy
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Italian Corn Meal Mush

Polenta is a coarse ground cornmeal and generally made into a mush-like porridge. Polenta is to the Italians, and especially to the Venetians, what potatoes is to the Irish, Germans and Americans, and rice to the Japanese.

Among our favorite foods, we love polenta's versatility and use it in every course of the meal from antipasto to dessert. It can be served for breakfast, lunch, dinner, and in between. As a mush polenta can be made with water, stock or milk. The mush is eaten soft, the consistency of hot cereal, or chilled and cut into slices which are then baked, broiled or fried. It is especially good with game birds, ragouts and stews - any dish where the polenta can absorb the meat juices or sauce. Polenta can be grilled, fried, and ladled; it works well with meat, poultry, and fish; it can be enriched by cream, butter, and cheese, or lightened with a little chicken broth. The possibilities are endless, and all make a considerably inexpensive and nourishing meal. Each region of Italy have its own versions of polenta, but we shall deal only with those of Venice and surrounding regions, including Istria. 

Polenta Before Corn

Before corn came to Europe, there was polenta and before polenta, there was puls and pulmentum, Roman armies had a porridge that was similar to polenta, made with millet, chestnut flour, chickpea flour, roasted barley, buckwheat and other grains. Pulmentum was carried by soldiers and made into mush or a hardened cake and the preparation was virtually identical to polenta, with the mixture of ground grain and water was frequently flavored and fortified with milk, cheese, and meats or their sauces. The Greeks, who knew it as poltos, made it with spelt flour, a larger and harder grain than our wheat, also known as farro.

Two centuries before the arrival of corn, buckwheat - known as grano saraceno in Italy -- made its way to Europe, introduced by the Saracens, who brought it from central Asia. It was prepared in very much the same way as chestnut flour and barley, and as corn would be. Called both polenta nera and polenta taragna, it remains popular in certain regions of Italy today, Tuscany among them, and the grain is sometimes added to cornmeal for an additional element of flavor, as in Bergamo. In virtually every culture the world around, you will find a similar comfort food, a porridge or pudding or gruel, served soft or allowed to harden, made of the common grain of the land. 

When corn was introduced to Italy in the 17th century it was readily adopted for a similar porridge, especially in the mountainous areas where wheat was less profitable to grow. Today it is prevalent throughout Piedmont, Lombardy, Veneto, and the Fruili. Polenta grains come in a variety of coarseness and color; white polenta is a specialty of the Veneto. This dish is so commonly used in Venice that it is impossible to find a recipe for polenta, experts said. Everyone knows how to make it without measuring anything; boil the water, put in some salt, and add enough meal. And the Venetians are righ, because this is the best way to make polenta. 

Throughout Northern Italy, the ingredients to make polenta vary only slightly. In some regions the yellow cornmeal used is very finely ground, while in other regions it is coarse, and in some others two kinds of polenta are blended. Sometimes yellow or white cornmeal mixed with buckwheat is used, and sometimes with a bit of semolina. The procedures employed to prepare polenta do not vary much. What varies is the thickness of the final product, according to how and with what polenta is going to be served. In order to maximize the taste, a harmonious balance in texture between polenta and other ingredients is necessary.

It is desirable to use coarsely ground polenta to make a rather thick polenta, while the finely ground type is more suitable for a thinner polenta. Medium ground cornmeal is suitable for most preparations. Whatever kind of polenta is used, be sure that it is dry and without lumps. It should be recently ground; if stored for a long time, the polenta may taste bitter.

Basic tools and ingredients

For each pound of polenta use 2 quarts of water and an ounce of salt. This ratio applies to a soft polenta, which are always served with a condiment or with other ingredients added. If polenta is to be used baked, grilled or instead of bread, use a 3 to 1 ratio of water to polenta, use the same amount of salt. The problem is that with oen package the ratio may work perfectly while a second package may need more or less water. So, it is best to do it the Venetian way, with is to say eyeball it.

The tools for making polenta, other than a strong arm and a weak brain, are a pot with sloping sides, a wooden paddle or spoon for mixing the cooking polenta, and a circular piece of wood or board. You may also a wire wisk for stirring the corn meal while you are inserting into the pot. The rest of the stirring is done with the wooden paddle or spoon.

Sloping sides on the pot make it easier to stir the polenta. The best kind of pot in which to cook polenta is the classic paiolo, made of copper without a tin lining, and with a convex bottom. For the weak of arm, there even exists an electric paiolo!

The piece of wood serves as a place to put the polenta when it is cooked, as a place for it to cool, and as a cutting board. The board normally has a handle and the handle a hole in it. The hole is there for two reasons: one, so that the board may be hung up on a peg of nail, and two, a place to attach a string. The string is used to cut the polenta by drawing it down across the board, thereby slicing the polenta.

Cooking procedures

The paiolo should only be half full with water; otherwise, in adding the cornmeal the water might overflow. The water should be properly salted in the beginning in order to avoid having to add either salt or water later in the cooking process. 

Bring the salted water to a boil, then lower the heat (be careful, because in the beginning while adding cornmeal, boiling water might easily splash) and add the coarsely ground cornmeal, little by little, stirring constantly to prevent lumps from forming. If you use finely ground cornmeal the danger of lumping is much greater [see note]. Do not pour directly from the container, but use your hands, pouring a handful at time. For this initial stirring, a wire whip works best, but after all the cornmeal has been blended into the pot, change to a wooden spoon (or tarello). Increase the heat, and let cook for 40-50 minutes, stirring constantly. While cooking, the heat should be high, to cause bubbles to rise and burst on the surface. While stirring separate the polenta from the sides of the pot and from the bottom toward the top. When ready, the polenta comes away easily from the sides of the pot. It can be served hot immediately with the desired condiment, or it may be poured out of the paiolo onto a wooden board. To do so, smooth the surface of the polenta and with a brisk move, turn the paiolo upside down. The polenta will easily come away from the paiolo. Cut with a wooden knife and serve. polenta is often cut with a piece of thick string stretched tightly between two hands. 

Note: polenta made with finely ground cornmeal forms lumps easily. In order to avoid this, add a fifth of the cornmeal to the salted water while it is still cold, mixing with a whisk. Once the cornmeal is blended with the water, cover, in order to prevent boiling polenta from splashing, and let boil for 10 minutes. Then, stirring constantly, add the remaining cornmeal following the procedures described in basic method.

How to serve polenta

Polenta is eaten with stews, game, cooked sausage, calf's liver Venetian style, and almost anything else where there might be some sauce to soak up.

Polenta may be eaten immediately after it is made, or it can be eaten cold. When cold, it can be cut into slices and charcoal-broiled; or it can be fried. One suggestion it to use a special frying pan that has ridges spaced about an inch apart, this to make it seem that it has been charcoal-broiled.

Polenta is often served as a starch instead of bread, especially in rural and mountain areas, together with tiny deep-fried fish, broiled cotechino, salami, or cheese. In this case it is not sauced but is served solely as a complement to meat, game and fish dishes cooked in sauces or gravies. Polenta is also served with cheese (gorgonzola, toma, fontina) or in bowls with cold milk. It is delicious when served very hot, dotted with fresh butter and sprinkled with parmigiano. It is good when sliced, arranged in layers in a baking dish, covered with wedges of parmigiano, sprinkled with melted butter and baked for a few minutes. You may add thinly sliced white truffles, if in season. Polenta leftovers may be sliced and fried in oil or lightly grilled over charcoal, then served either as a side dish or, better yet, covered with lard minced with parsley and garlic. Polenta may also be prepared by cooking it with other ingredients like beans, cabbage, spinach, and potatoes. In this case, polenta is dotted with butter or browned lard, sprinkled with parmigiano, and thus served as a complete meal.

Sources:

  • H.F. Bruning, Jr. and Cav. Umberto Bullo, Venetian Cooking, 200 Authentic Recipes Adapted for American Cooks, Macmillan Publishing Co., Inc. (New York, 1973)
  • Michele Anna Jordan, Polenta, Broadway Books (1997)
  • Polenta - Cornmeal - http://www.milioni.com/Polenta/default1.htm
  • ItalianMade.com - Polenta - http://www.italianmade.com/recipes/recipe421.cfm
  • http://www.italiancookingandliving.com/food/ingredients/polenta.html

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This page compliments of Marisa Ciceran

Created: Friday, January 23, 2004; Last Updated: Sunday, October 14, 2012
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