The Rules of Polenta

3 Apr

Awwww, it seems that Gennie dredged up some mercy in her little heart after I whined about not having time to write anything and sent me this charming little piece about polenta and what to do with it. When you’re done reading, go click on her name and look at her photos of Yorkshire puddings because they’re ad-yorkable.

Lamb and polenta. (Copyright: Gennie Jenner, 2012)

It may surprise some, but in Italy, there are rules. There are rules about what what you can have on a sandwich. There are rules about what you drink at specific times of day. Yet these rules vary from region to region and even village to village. Everyone believes their rules are superior to all other rules and they are also likely to believe that their version of something is the original version. Imagine if you will, hundreds of creation myths regarding a dish, and then multiply that by a thousand or so in terms of assorted dishes available to people. This is why Italy’s government falls apart every nine months or so. You have so many versions of how things ought to be that officially, that very little will be accomplished.

Yet, day to day things happen. Like dinner. You can rely on dinner in Italy. It might end up being consumed at 10 o’clock at night, but it will happen.

Tonight, we shall make polenta. In the North, they use a coarse variety of cornmeal. In the South (like in Calabria, where some of my family came from), they use a much finer version of cornmeal. The upside of the fine cornmeal is that cooks a little more quickly. We are going to do that because sometimes you just want to get dinner on the table before someone can develop some kind of long-standing feud with someone else. It happens. You should meet some members of my family. There are people who have held grudges for decades. But let’s forget them for a bit.

Put out the antipasti and pour some drinks. You have water to boil. Polenta is really about ratios. Let’s imagine you are only cooking for two,(obviously double if you are cooking for more people) so measure out about ½ cup of cornmeal (set that aside in a bowl so you won’t forget about it) In a sauce pan (remember from last time, isn’t this thing getting a work-out or what?) that isn’t made of Teflon, because what are we? Visigoths? You will want to bring to boil 1 ½ cups of water. Add a little salt. You know a little, not a lot. Once the water comes to a boil, you will sprinkle in a little of the cornmeal and you will stir. Stirring is what you do. The cornmeal may try and clump up together like fascists and you have to break up these clumps with your wooden spoon. Beat the clumps against the side of the sauce pan. And you continue to slowly add sprinklings of the cornmeal. I know this may seem like a lot of effort for a peasant dish but this is a dish from a Catholic country. As my mother would say, “offer it up.” (A little suffering is good for the soul.)

As you add more of the cornmeal, you will reduce the heat. You can slow down on the stirring a little bit as you have to check the other elements of dinner. The polenta is still cooking. Lovely. Return to stirring and continue to keep an eye on potential clumps. It will over time become thick and much like a porridge. It should be ready.

Now you can pour it into a large dish and put your ragu on top (you know the one you have been cooking for eight hours–yes, that one) or you can serve it with grilled sausages, which is more common in the Emiglia-Romagna region of Italy. I like doing this when I want to make a quick dinner. Between that and a simple salad, you have a well-rounded meal.

Rectangular polenta. Polentangula. (Copyright: Gennie Jenner, 2012)

OR you could take the polenta and pour it out onto a wooden board, and as it is cooling, you shape it into a rectangle. Once it has cooled enough, you can cut it into slices and serve it up as a first course. You could put bits of cured meat or fish on top of each slice. Maybe some some sauteed mushrooms. I trust that you know your audience. You can even take the leftovers and fry it up the following day for breakfast. Have it with some eggs and bacon. It is a starch that is incredibly flexible and goes with the moment. Much like the people who eat it.

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One Response to “The Rules of Polenta”

  1. bethR April 4, 2012 at 2:43 pm #

    not terribly long ago, i braved polenta again in order to make a gluten-free pizza crust. though brian and i found it delightful enough, it turned into two and a half days of world war three with oliver. the things i endured in order for him to either finish that polenta pizza or be done with it and not have a dessert/snack. children. i’m pretty sure i won.

    anyway, i’m now weighing my options and considering a return to the polenta killing fields. maybe he’ll like it better morphed into another form. maybe i’ll fashion a polenta pony. children.

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