With winter in full swing, now is the perfect time to bring up the subject of polenta. It is an ingredient that sparks highly conflicting opinions. Many adore it, while others are convinced it is tasteless. That being said, I grew up in the Veneto. In this part of the world, polenta and risotto are not only food staples, they are food icons.
So to those who say polenta is inedible, I can only promise that they must try a bowl made by someone who understands how to make it. To those who love it, I feel a recognizable connection. All opinions aside, as with many foods it is a question of texture. Think of polenta as a soft, silky mash that replaces the potato for example; imagine it as the comforting neutral base to stews and thick, chunky minestrone style soups. I am convinced that like me, you will jump at the chance to have some.
Read the nostalgic recipe below, to learn how to make a creamy, pale yellow soup, known as minestra di farina zala, in Vicentino dialect. I believe it is the perfect starting point in the appreciation of simplicity.
I grew up in Caldogno, just outside Vicenza. For those who have lived or traveled through this unpretentiously elegant region, you might recall photographing Renaissance villas in Palladio’s style dotted throughout the countryside. Perhaps you visited Bassano del Grappa, crossing the covered wooden bridge on foot that forms the entrance to the town, only to stop at the infamous bar on the corner to drink some grappa.
On a carefree evening in September, you might have observed a live chess game, reminder of a Renaissance pageant, revived every other year in the town square of Marostica. Maybe you admired the mountains of Asiago and Monte Grappa as seen from the hills of Monte Berico. Then again, perhaps you can tell a story about wandering the streets of Verona and stopping to buy flowers on the Piazza dell’Erbe before taking the train back home . . . . . . If all this sounds unfamiliar, I invite you to travel someday to the Veneto, adventuring inland from Venice, taking in the beauty of its countryside. This is the place I call home; more importantly, this is where my heart lives.
I would like to start this polenta story with a nostalgic recipe that dates back to the 1800’s. This particular recipe is adapted from the book entitled “La Cucina Vicentina” by Amedeo Sandri and Maurizio Falloppi. This dish is more like a soup than a porridge and is prepared with just three ingredients. If possible, make it with fine cornmeal for polenta cultivated in the Veneto. If not easily available, simply replace this ingredient with a local, organic and preferably stoneground cornmeal.
- 1200 ml full fat milk . raw milk if available
- 100 grams fine cornmeal flour for polenta
- 50 grams of unsalted butter
- a pinch of sea salt
Pour the milk in a heavy-bottomed pan. Bring the milk to boiling point, then turn it down to a simmer. Add a pinch of sea salt, and then pour the cornmeal into the milk in a steady stream. Whisk the ingredients vigorously a few minutes, to prevent the cornmeal from clumping together.
Cook the cornmeal 35-40 minutes at low heat, stirring regularly with a wooden spoon. This keeps the cornmeal from sticking to the bottom of the pan. At this point a delicate layer of milk and cornmeal will have formed on top. Turn off the heat and stir in the butter until melted and well incorporated.
Serve the warm minestra in soup bowls with a pitcher of cold milk. Pour some cold milk in the middle of each bowl and sprinkle it with sugar.
Traditionally, this one-course main meal was served ever so slightly sweetened by sugar. If you like, you could replace the sugar with finely grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Although it is no longer common to eat a creamy soup on its own for the evening meal, this minestra can be just what you need after a big lunch or a long day at work.
This is the first in a series of recipes with a focus on polenta. A project undertaken in collaboration with fellow food lover Biagio d’Angelo, our stories will be published with the hashtag #polentaisthenewyellow on Instagram in the month of February ’21.
My contribution will focus on savory dishes from the Veneto, while Biagio will make all things sweet with polenta. I will be posting Biagio’s sweet desserts here every Sunday, translated into English. Biagio on the other hand, will translate my recipe stories into Italian, and publish them on his blog every Saturday, starting with my earlier post polenta porridge.
Please feel free to tell your own polenta stories on Instagram! If you read Italian, you simply must look up gloggtheblog by Biagio, where he writes of his endless romance with desserts.