Since the annual pandemonium and pageantry of Carnevale has begun in Venice, Viareggio, Rio, Portugal, and… my house, I thought it might be fitting to chat about the food most representative of this celebration in Italy – Polenta. Because there is so much to say about Polenta – where it came from, how to prepare it, how to serve it, I will discuss it in two posts beginning today with its origins, use, and preparation. This post will be followed later in the week with some great ways to serve it. So don your mask and costume and yank last year’s parade float out of the garage and – Andiamo!
What is Polenta anyway? Polenta, a simple cornmeal mush, dates back centuries. Those Nawthern Italians insist on laying claim to it, but you’ll find it in many of the other regions in Italy – though not quite as much in Tuscany. Its origins actually date back to the ancient Romans making theirs as a kind of porridge-like mush which was called pulmentum. When corn came on the scene in the 1600’s, Polenta became more like what we are used to seeing now. It is likened in consistency and appearance to the grits of the American South.
The source ingredient of Polenta can be found as several different types of flour or cornmeal throughout Italy. The most common polenta flour is Bramata Fioretto which is very fine and makes a softer polenta. In Venice, the home of Carnevale, cooks most often use polenta bianca or white cornmeal. Along the Piedmont, you will sometimes even find it made with potatoes. Some areas of Italy use buckwheat or chestnut flour.
Italians have become accustomed to serving it on Shrove Tuesday – the day before Ash Wednesday when Lent begins. Polenta is typically part of the last big meal eaten usually with meat before we all deprive ourselves and give up everything we “love” for the next 40 days of fasting, self-flagellation, and misery. Shrove Tuesday, in Italy, is the last day of the color and revelry of Carnevale, a three week celebration, when all care and propriety are cast aside in favor of masked balls, music, and copious amounts of eating, and drinking. It’s kind of a “party now while you still can” sort of thing before you are reminded where you came from and where you are ultimately going on Ash Wednesday.
Carnevale aside – families celebrate with a large meal consisting of Polenta. In our house, we always looked forward to this special meal, gathered together in our tiny kitchen in Binghamton, New York. As Neapolitans, we served our Polenta with my mother, Loretta’s sauce and little meatballs and my father, Attilio’s homemade salsiccia or sausage. (Read more about Loretta and Attilio on my website: (Click here) Traditionally, it was cooked for hours over a wood fire in a copper pot called a paiolo and was stirred with a long stick-like spoon called a tarai. When I say LONG, I mean LONG. This wooden spoon along with the long slow cooking process provides one of my earliest childhood memories. As we cooked it for hours in a tall pot on the stove, someone had to stir it, and we all took turns. As a little girl, my father, stood me up on a chair and put the long wooden spoon (which seemed almost as tall as I was) in my hand and let me take a turn. I’ll never forget how important I felt to have a role in the making of the Polenta.
When the Polenta was ready, my father poured the thick golden mass from the pot on large board or sometimes several long serving plates. It was then that Loretta spooned the beautiful red sauce over the top and followed with the tiny meatballs, sausage, and grated cheese. It was truly a thing of beauty. This ritual occurred every year on Shrove Tuesday in our home. Many families are known to sit around the Polenta and eat it with spoons together straight from the board or serving dish while it is soft. Later, the Polenta solidifies or becomes firm after it sits and when this occurs it can be cut into squares for servings. In the “old” days, Italian cooks used a string to cut it.
Today Polenta has become so easy with the introduction of instant types that are readily available at most grocers and markets. The long cooking process is no longer necessary. It can be ready in just a few short minutes ready for any family meal. I’d like to suggest that you make your Polenta a day ahead. This way, it becomes solid and cuts into squares easily. From there, you can use it in so many ways. For instance, you’ll see it on the very sophisticated and authentic of Italian restaurant menus as squares, sometimes fried, with all types of sauces and stews containing both meat and fish. It is used like mashed potatoes, couscous, or rice as the receptacle or nest for all the luscious goodness in so many sauces. It is the perfect “platform” for short ribs served on the bone. Click the link to my recipe for Beef Short Ribs! (Click here) Polenta is also a great addition to veal shanks as in Osso Buco, or even Baccala (codfish). Click the link to a great Baccala Recipe! (Click here). One of my favorite ways to serve it is topped with a beautiful and mouth watering Calamari Sauce.
Think of Polenta as that old pair of Huaraches (woven Mexican sandals) from the ‘60’s – like very basic peasant-wear, but it goes with simply everything!
Also – there is good news here for those who have not quite finished the Swedish novels begun in our Short Ribs post. YES! You CAN use a Slow Cooker to make your Polenta! You just need to oil your Slow Cooker bowl, add a couple of cups more water than the recipe suggests, throw in your Polenta and salt, and cook for 5-6 hours on Low. Then it is right back to the sofa with the girls with the tattoos, and the hornets nests. You get the idea!
I will give you a general recipe which I use with a quicker form of Polenta. The Italian “instants” are always good, but Bob’s Red Mill Polenta is just fine also.You can just as easily follow the directions on your package of Instant Polenta. However, there is one addition that I make in adding 8 ounces of Mascarpone Cheese (like our American Cream Cheese only much nicer) just after the regular cooking time is complete. This addition gives the Polenta a rich and creamy flavor and consistency. I think you’ll like it.
Look People! FOUR INGREDIENTS! Can you beat that?
6 c. Water
1 Tbsp Salt
2 c. Polenta
8 oz. Mascarpone Cheese
Bring your water and salt to a boil and add the Polenta.
Stir with a whisk. ( You don’t want lumps. That is why the whisk is a great tool for this.)
Give it a stir every few minutes for about 25 minutes keeping heat low. You’ll see it begin to thicken. Stir more when you see this so that it doesn’t burn. A wooden spoon is perfect for the stirring. Be careful, as the Polenta likes to “spit” at you as it gets very hot and this BURNS! If you get too much “spitting” you can add a little more water or remove from the heat. Also add a little more water if it appears to be drying. As you go, it may look done but have patience and give it the full time.
After the 25 minutes you should be able to “cut a path” through it with your spoon. You can taste it. If it is not raw tasting it is done. The 25 min. usually does the job.
Now add the Mascarpone and stir it in until it is smooth. Let it cook in just a few min. and you are finished! If you like, you can stir in 1/4 to 1/2 c. grated Parmigiano-Reggiano and some fresh herbs, if you like. The amount is determined by how cheesy and herby you are feeling.
At this point, you can pour it out onto a board or serving plates.
Smooth it out to rest.
You can also pour it into a baking pan and put it into the refrigerator until later or the next day. Then cut into squares, heat, or fry, and serve it as you like with “Sunday Sauce”, meat or fish. See how it cuts into perfect squares. Your mind could absolutely run wild with ideas and uses for this presentation.
It is really delicious and has such lovely texture. Everyone seems to love this. It makes a great main course, brunch or side dish. The best part is that it is easy and can be made ahead.
Meanwhile – watch for the next post later this week which will discuss serving the Polenta in ways you might not have guessed plus a great recipe!
PARLA COME MANGI!
Also: See the NEW RECIPE OF THE MONTH for March on LINDA’S ITALIAN TABLE!
Food Photos By Tommy Hanks Photography