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 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. 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 at 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 in a heavy-bottomed pan. Traditionalists say that polenta should be cooked in copper, not only because it conducts heat so evenly, but because it prevents the polenta from sticking on the bottom. Not everyone has copper pans in their kitchen . . . myself included . . . so please 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 vigorously with a whisk. Once the ingredients are incorporated, switch to a wooden spoon and keep stirring the cornmeal constantly in one direction. This prevents the cornmeal from clumping. After a few minutes, the cornmeal mixture will start to bubble, a sign to turn down the heat to its lowest flame.
Now comes the time to let your creative thoughts and dreams float by, as you continue to stir the cornmeal constantly with a wooden, making sure to stir the bottom of the pan to keep it from clumping. The process of stirring also creates a smooth and creamy texture to the finished porridge. After about 20 minutes, check the texture of the cornmeal. If it’s too dry, add a splash of boiling, 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 and the mash pulls away from the sides of the pan. At this point, turn off the heat and put a lid on the pan, allowing the polenta rest ten 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.
Speaking of “Polentone”
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. . . .
P.S. Polenta is not necessarily or exclusively made with cornmeal. Depending on the region, and of course the historical timeline, polenta can me made with the flour of made from farro, buckwheat and even chestnuts. This particular story will have to wait for another time though!