It’s always a good day for Polenta! Polenta is a semi-liquid dough made of water and cereal flour (usually coarse ground). The most common variety of cereal is yellow corn, but buckwheat and white corn are also regional alternatives. Coarse grinds make a firm, coarse polenta; finer grinds make a creamy, soft polenta. Polenta flour is poured in salted water boiling in a heavy-gauge copper pot (paiolo). It should be cooked slowly and continuously stirred with a wooden stick at least for 40-45 minutes. However, there’s either a motor-driven paddle that takes care of the stirring for you or some good 10-minutes polenta meeting our need to fast things up :)
Polenta is a neutral ingredient that goes well with meat, fish, and veggies and gives a lot of space to creativity and interpretation. Immediately after cooking, polenta is soft and creamy. It can be served as it is, usually as a bed for stews. It can also be allowed to cool down in bowl, turn upside down and sliced. These firm slices can be grilled or fried and used as crostini. The pieces can also be layered and baked with a meat sauce or cheese.
Here’s a few traditional ways to cook polenta.
Pulenta e Galena Fregia / Polenta and Cold Hen
What makes ‘Pulenta e Galena Fregia’ are essentially strips of boiled hen served with the Toc (p. tock), a specialty creamy polenta mixed with butter and cheeses. Toc means “touch”; instead of proper dishes the guests use big wooden spoons and eat directly from a big paiolo placed in the middle of the room. Regel (p. re-gehl) is the classic beverage to follow. Red wine is added to the polenta leftovers in the paiolo, warmed up with cinnamon, cloves, nutmeg, orange and lemon zest, an apple cut in pieces and flambéed! Here’s a spectacular photo gallery presenting the original way of the Toc. Credits ViaggiatoreGourmet
Pulenta e Missultin / Polenta and Missultin
Among the most famous dishes of Como Lake, this kind of polenta is served with sun-dried agones, shad-like fish caught in the lake. Their name “missultin” comes from the container where they’re placed, the “misolta”. Missultin are typically grilled for 5 min with polenta slices (previously brushed with melted butter, olive oil and herb salt), sprayed with vinegar and served.
>>> How an Agone becomes a Missultin – The fishing of Agone is regulated since the Middle Age. Agones are caught on gravel bottoms, after the egg-laying season (in June and July – May would be the perfect time but to preserve the local wildlife May fishing is now forbidden). The fish goes under a complex process to become “missultin”. Once caught and selected (they must be between 7 and 8 inches long), agones are cleaned (guts are removed, but head and tail are kept), rubbed with salt, cut on the back and placed in containers, where they get twisted upside down every 12 hours. After a few days, they get pierced, hanged to a dedicated rack and sun-dried for 15 days. Once ready they are then placed in a circular container (the “misolta”, which can be made of wood or tin), layered with bay leaves and pressed.
This cheesy polenta is a gem of Val D’Aosta, and Biella (Piedmont) but it is also extensively prepared in Lombardy. Different cities and regions have different traditions and use different kinds of cheese. Fontina and Toma are the classic options, but also Brie, Mild Provolone, Gruyere are good alternatives. Polenta and the cheeses are layered a couple of times, coated with melted butter and baked. See more.
There’s also a slightly different cheesy recipe, called Polenta Uncia. Typically prepared on Lake Como, this very rich polenta is a mix of corn and buckwheat flours cooked and blended with a hearty soffritto of butter, garlic and sage. Half-fat cheese is stirred in until absorbed and it is usually served in single portioned clay bowl.
Poenta Bianca / White Polenta
Made from peeled corn kernels, white polenta is a rare variety from Veneto. It is usually served with baccalà mantecato (salt cod spread) and baccalà alla Vicentina (stockfish Vicenza style), other classics from that region.
Polenta ‘Roscia’ / Roman Polenta with Ribs and Broccoli Rabe
An original recipe from Ciociaría, in the southern region of Rome, polenta ‘roscia’ is a fine coarse yellow corn type of polenta served with stewed pork ribs and sausages. In the old days, when meat was expensive and a once-a-week-meal, polenta was laid on big wooden boards and the usually small amount of meat was placed in the middle. The fastest family member to eat polenta would have reached the center and eaten the meat. Pecorino Romano DOP is usually sprinkled on top and the typical side dish is garlicky broccoli rabe.
Made of a mix of buckwheat and yellow corn flour, polenta taragna is a Valtellina classic dish, together with pizzoccheri and bresaola. The name comes from the wooden stick traditionally used to stir it (“tarai” or “tarel”). Proportions for 2 people are: 4 cups of water, 2 cups of polenta, 5 oz of diced mountain cheese (fontina, bitto or casera), 2 oz of diced butter and a pinch of salt. Once polenta is thick, add butter and cheese until melted and serve immediately. Great with pork, sausages, stews and mushrooms. Pair with a medium or full-bodied Northern red wine as Nebbiolo or Barbera.
Polenta e Coniglio / Polenta & Rabbit
Europeans eat bunnies, yes they do! Rabbit is sautéed and stewed with its liver, veggies, herbs and tomato sauce. A creamy hot polenta is the perfect pairing for this heartwarming dish in a cold, snowy day. See recipe here.
Polenta e Bruscitti / Polenta and Bruscitti
Polenta e Bruscitti is a traditional dish of my hometown, Busto Arsizio. The “bruscitt” are little squares of beef which are pan-seared with butter and lard, flavored with garlic, wild fennel seeds, a medium-bodied red wine (Barbera, Nebbiolo or Barolo) and slowly cooked for a couple of hours. Pulenta & Bruscitti has always been a matter of pride and mastership. Campi, a premium local pastry shop even invented a sweet alternative, whose recipe is secret since the 50s.
Polenta e Zucchero
A classic of my childhood. Polenta leftovers can easily become little morsels crumbed in the sugar :)