‘Ah, polenta. In Europe, during and after the War, we ate it almost daily. And it was good,’ my late father told me over dinner one evening many years ago.
A traditional staple of northern Italy and other continental regions, polenta is bright yellow corn meal cooked in simmering water (in a large copper pot or paiolo, according to Larousse), and stirred with a wooden spoon or whisk.
Although my father had fond memories of it, polenta wasn't something that my mother ever cooked - although the texture reminds me very much of the semolina pudding we ate for breakfast on winter mornings. Pure comfort food.
Polenta can be served either as a soft wet porridge, or left to cool before being sliced into wedges and grilled.The recipe I am providing here (which is my own) is for the firmer version of polenta, suitable for grilling.
It is perfect as a base to unctuous, sauce-laden dishes such as osso bucco; as well as mushroom, pork or sausage ragout. It also sits well with things like braised lamb kidneys or chicken livers (I'm cooking lamb kidneys to go with it tonight); or a sauté of tomatoes, beans and bell peppers.
At a truffle degustation enjoyed at Pulp Kitchen in Canberra this week, chef Luke Drummond served a baked truffled polenta with a braise of locally-grown mushrooms, asparagus and slices of black pudding (boudin noir). The combination of flavours and textures in that dish was outstanding. Indeed, it was so good that I am still fantasising about it. I have the polenta, mushrooms and truffled oil - now to find some good black pudding and Australian asparagus. Oh, and perhaps a bottle of the 2014 Lerida Estate Cullerin Pinot Noir that was served with it.
In The Cooks’ Companion, Stephanie Alexander recommends coarsely ground polenta in preference to fine polenta, which she says lumps more easily. “It is also possible to buy instant polenta, which I do not recommend at all," she writes, adding that it produces a soft, claggy paste with none of the gritty texture one expects from good polenta.
1.1 litres water
1 teaspoon butter, optional
2-3 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Pecorino
ground pepper and extra salt, to taste
Bring the salted water to the boil in a large, deep-sided, heavy-based saucepan. Lower the heat until the water is simmering. Add the polenta slowly, in a steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or spatula.
Cook, stirring the pot, for 15-20 minutes until the polenta is smooth and free from lumps. Take care during the cooking, as the polenta will bubble and splatter, much like lava. You don’t want to burn yourself.
Stir in a little butter (if desired) and the cheese, and then spread the polenta into a square or rectangular tray lined with baking parchment. Allow the polenta to cool and set - pop it in the refrigerator briefly.
When you are ready to serve, slice the polenta into segments with a sharp knife and brush both sides with a little olive oil. Heat a ribbed grill pan and toast the polenta wedges, using a flat spatula to turn the them over. Season well and serve with the topping and accompaniments of your choice. Serves 4-6.
It's your turn dear readers. Would you classify polenta as 'comfort food'? Have you eaten any standout polenta dishes? Do please take a moment to share your thoughts and experiences. I love hearing from you.
Hello. I'm Liz, a writer, cook and traveller based in Canberra, Australia.
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NB: I use Australian standard measuring cups and spoons in my recipes.