This morning I sit at my desk to tell a short story that seems fitting for the times. My subject is yellow like saffron, but with much humbler origins. My ingredient is flour made from corn. My recipe is for something essential to every northern Italian table and it goes by the name of polenta.
Polenta is a mash much like porridge. In the Veneto it is symbolic of simple sustenance. To make it only a few ingredients are needed, namely cornmeal water and salt. But to create the perfect bowl of golden, soft, pillowy polenta requires the tools called patience and time.
Like the perfect oatmeal, good polenta requires the right proportion between grain and water. Like making pizza dough without a scale, its preparation will never be exactly the same, because each season’s flour will react differently to the humidity in the air and the freshness of the flour. One thing is certain: as with all things in the kitchen, the quality of the end product will depend on the passion of the cook behind the stove.
For those who have never experienced the simple comfort of a warm bowl of savory cornmeal porridge, search for the purest finely ground cornmeal available to you. Choose a day that feels like the perfect Sunday morning. Measure and mix three simple ingredients in a pan. Stir slowly and wait — wait and stir until the loose grains of corn come together into something as creamy as golden mashed potatoes.
Below are my basic ingredient guidelines for soft polenta. A coarse cornmeal will absorb more water than mentioned below. Generally polenta is not made with broth, but it can absolutely benefit from it. For now, the simplest of preparations seem appropriate.
Ingredients (for 4 persons)
- 250 grams cornmeal . I prefer mine finely ground
- 1 liter of water
- 1 teaspoon of sea salt
- a pinch of finely ground white pepper
Bring the water and sea salt to a boil. Traditionalists say that the pan should be copper (but I have yet to acquire one myself, so feel free to use your best heavy-bottom soup or stewing pan).
Once the water is hot enough, pour the cornmeal in a steady stream while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Stir the cornmeal constantly in one direction (this prevents the cornmeal from clumping). At a certain point, the cornmeal and water start to bubble. This marks the moment to turn down the heat as low as possible. (I sometimes even use a bain marie — see my notes below).
Keep stirring the cornmeal mixture slowly. This will ensure that the polenta has a smooth texture. I also find this is a good moment to let creative thoughts and dreams float by. After about 20 minutes, check the texture of the cornmeal. If its too dry, add some hot boiling and salted water. If it’s too wet, keep stirring. Once 30 minutes have passed, taste the cornmeal. It is cooked when the grains are no longer sand-like.
Turn off the heat and put a lid on the pan. Let the polenta rest fifteen minutes. Meanwhile, set the table and gather the garnishing ingredients to match your meal plan. Fill a few bowls with warm polenta and sprinkle it with white pepper and dust each bowl with freshly ground Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Spread the remaining polenta out on a wooden cutting board to cool and save it for the grill until the following day.
In the springtime, scatter your polenta with fresh field like wild garlic. In the fall and winter, freshly chopped rosemary or fried sage do polenta an honor. For those who love cheese, absolutely any kind of cheese is a match made in heaven for a steaming bowl of warm cornmeal.
Keep it simple to start, and move on from there, adding tomato sauce or caramelized onions — even add an egg as a friend of mine Elisa told me about a few years ago.
My favorite way to eat day-old polenta is grilled over an open fire, charred at the edges by wood smoke, taken from crackling hot racks in the open air of my best friend’s garden.
Notes on traditions in the Veneto
I grew up in the small town of Caldogno, located in the northern region the Veneto. This little countryside town is north of Vicenza, famous for its Renaissance architecture. Caldogno has its own reason for fame, among others for its very own Palladian villa. For me it is the place that signifies the meditative quiet of small town Italy — complete with smells of dairy cattle in the fields and church bells that wake you in the morning.
It is here that I learned to know the kitchen of the Veneto — an interesting combination of exotic Venetian influences dating back to the Middle Ages intermingled with truly down to earth country cooking. In this region, pasta is not nearly as important as risotto and polenta is sacred.
In Italian, the word polentone (male) or polentona (female) refers to someone who eats a lot of polenta. Not everyone in the Veneto considers this term to be an insult. However, the same word is sometimes used in a derogatory way in which case it means, someone who is particularly slow. . . .