As someone who writes about Italian food, I pride myself in knowing, and understanding, Italian ingredients. But when it comes to polenta, I’ve been remiss.
I did not grow up eating polenta; my Italian mother did not care for it, even though hot polenta topped with ragu is a popular winter dish in her native region of Abruzzo. My own interest in it as a cook was half-hearted. How much appeal, after all, could there be in a bowl of cooked cornmeal? Mostly, the word “polenta” conjured unappetizing images of that vacuum-packed yellow sausage of solid, sliceable corn mush sold at the supermarket.
It was a visit to Valle d’Aosta during Christmas of 2018 that changed my mind about this quintessential cold weather comfort food. In Italy’s smallest region, tucked up in the northwest corner of the peninsula, polenta is not just a pantry staple; it is a daily ritual, the way a dish of pasta remains a daily ritual for many people in southern Italy. In Aosta itself, a cozy alpine city ringed with mountains, polenta is featured on every restaurant and osteria menu. Even the town’s mini Christmas market had two polenta stands, both of which almost always had customers lined up, no matter the time of day or night. The offerings were various: polenta drizzled with hot melted butter; polenta “concia,” with lots of Fontina cheese stirred in; polenta topped with smoky grilled sausages; polenta with beef stew called carbonnade. In the four days my family and I spent there, we tasted them all, wrapping our hands around warm bowls and feeling the heat of the porridge radiate within us as we ate. All versions were good; but really it was the cornmeal itself, made from local stone-ground field corn, golden in color and toasty in flavor, and cooked at length to bring out the grain’s natural sweetness, that won me over.
Polenta is an ancient food in Italy, dating to the Etruscans. Early versions were made from millet, rye and barley flour. It wasn’t until the 17th century, when field corn, a New World ingredient, was introduced to Europe, that polenta became a corn-based dish. It has always been a humble dish, food to fill the stomachs of the poor; but like so much of Italy’s “cucina povera” (cooking of the poor), it is now appreciated for its flavor, its versatility, and the way it lifts up other ingredients. There are many regional variations: in Lombardy and the Veneto, a dish called “polenta e osei” pairs polenta with small roasted game birds. In Liguria, polenta, hearty winter vegetables and beans are slowly cooked down into a dense, nourishing porridge. And in the Apennine Mountains of Abruzzo, polenta is poured out onto a large wooden board called a “spianatoia,” topped with sausages and ragu, and served as a communal dish.
Top it however you like; just be sure to start with good-quality cornmeal, preferably stone-ground. Stone-ground cornmeal retains the hull and germ of the grain, which gives it a pleasing texture and corn flavor when cooked. Many recipes call for coarsely ground cornmeal when making polenta, but you can use coarse, medium, or fine. I like a mix of fine and medium, which is what I had in Aosta. This combination produces polenta that has some texture but is still creamy. Polenta can also be soft or sturdy, depending on the liquid-to-grain ratio, and when you serve it. A 1:4 ratio (one part polenta to four parts liquid) is a good rule of thumb to achieve thick but spoonable polenta. For me, polenta is most enjoyable immediately after it’s cooked, while it is still hot and pourable. Left to sit, it solidifies quickly, at which point it can be sliced and fried, grilled or baked.
Cooking polenta is often made out to be a chore for the modern cook — so much time, all that stirring. Shortcuts have been devised, from soaking the grains overnight to baking the polenta in the oven. I sometimes use these shortcuts myself, but when I have the time I prefer the old-fashioned method of stirring the cornmeal on the stovetop, so I can watch as the mixture bubbles and transforms, slowly, from a coarse slurry into a soft, golden porridge. That transformation is essential, as it removes any bitterness and unlocks the polenta’s natural sweetness. On a cold night in the middle of winter, it hardly seems a chore.
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 45 minutes
Makes: 6 servings
A bowl of polenta is winter comfort food at its simplest and finest. Keep in mind that if you start with high-quality, stone-ground cornmeal, you will end up with better-tasting polenta. And be sure to give it the time it needs to cook to properly develop that appealing sweet corn flavor.
6 cups water, plus more as needed
2 teaspoons fine salt, plus more as needed
1 cup finely ground polenta (cornmeal)
1/2 cup medium-ground polenta
3 tablespoons butter, melted and still hot
Measure the water and 2 teaspoons salt into a medium heavy-bottomed, high-sided saucepan or Dutch oven; bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Add the polenta in a slow stream, stirring all the while to prevent lumps from forming. Bring to a simmer, then reduce the heat to low. Cook, stirring often to prevent the polenta from sticking to the bottom of the pot, until the grains are fully cooked, about 45 minutes. The polenta should be thick and creamy but still pourable. If you find it is too thick toward the end of cooking, stir in a little more water. When the polenta is done, taste and season with more salt if needed. Remove the pot from the heat; stir in the butter.
Nutrition information per serving: 231 calories, 6 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 15 mg cholesterol, 40 g carbohydrates, 0 g sugar, 4 g protein, 785 mg sodium, 3 g fiber
VARIATION: POLENTA CONCIA
This variation of basic polenta comes from Valle d’Aosta, where polenta is pretty much a daily staple and sweet-pungent Fontina is the local cheese. It’s hard to translate the word “concia.” It can mean tanned (as in a beach tan or a tanned hide); but also “dirty,” “cured,” “styled” or “fixed.” My best guess is the latter applies here, where a bowl of plain porridge is “fixed” by the addition of a nearly obscene amount of Fontina. Serve this rich polenta as is, or topped with sausage, beef stew or braised greens.
Follow the directions for basic polenta. When the polenta is fully cooked, stir in 8 to 12 ounces of shredded Fontina Val d’Aosta, stirring vigorously until the cheese is fully melted and one with the porridge. Stir in the butter and serve.
POLENTA AL FORNO WITH PORK RIB RAGU
Prep: 30 minutes
Cook: 2 hours, 45 minutes
Makes: 6 to 8 servings
Think of this baked polenta (“forno” means oven) as a rustic lasagna, sandwiched with a layer of cheese and topped with a rich meat sauce.
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 rack (3 pounds) meaty pork spare ribs, cut into individual ribs
Freshly ground black pepper
1 medium carrot, finely chopped
1 medium onion, finely chopped
1 rib celery, finely chopped
1 clove garlic, lightly crushed
1/2 cup dry red wine
1 can (28 ounces) tomatoes, passed through a food mill to remove seeds; or 1 can (28 ounces) tomato puree
1 bay leaf
1 batch basic polenta, see recipe
1 tablespoon softened butter
4 ounces Asiago fresco or Fontina, shredded
2 tablespoons freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for serving
1. In a large Dutch oven or other heavy-bottomed pot, heat the oil over medium heat. Season the ribs with salt and pepper. Add as many ribs as will fit into the pot without crowding. Brown the ribs, about 4 minutes. Using tongs, turn them and brown the other side, 3 to 4 minutes longer. Transfer to a plate; repeat with the remaining ribs.
2. Add the carrot, onion, celery and garlic to the pot; stir to coat. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook until the vegetables are softened, about 7 minutes. Remove the garlic. Raise the heat to medium-high and pour in the wine. Simmer, 1 minute. Add the tomatoes and bay leaf. Return the ribs to the pot, along with any juices from the plate. Bring to a boil, then lower the heat to maintain a low simmer. Cover the pot and braise, stirring from time to time, until the meat is tender, about 2 hours. Taste and add more salt and pepper, if needed. Uncover and cook until the sauce has thickened, about 30 minutes more.
3. While the sauce is braising, cook the polenta according to the basic polenta recipe.
4. Heat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly butter a round or rectangular ovenproof baking dish large enough to hold the polenta. Spread half the polenta into the dish and sprinkle the shredded cheese over it. Pour the remaining polenta on top and spread it evenly over the cheese. Sprinkle the Parmigiano cheese on top. Bake, uncovered, until the polenta is firm and bubbly, 20 to 30 minutes. (If you would like to brown the top more, briefly place the baking dish under the broiler.)
5. To serve, cut the polenta into wedges or squares and place in shallow rimmed bowls. Spoon some ragu over each portion and top with a couple of ribs and a sprinkle of Parmigiano cheese.
Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 608 calories, 39 g fat, 14 g saturated fat, 112 mg cholesterol, 42 g carbohydrates, 6 g sugar, 25 g protein, 1,034 mg sodium, 5 g fiber
Prep: 30 minutes, plus overnight soaking of beans
Cook: 1 hour, 20 minutes
Makes: 8 to 10 servings
If there is snow or icy rain in your forecast, this is the dish to make. It comes from the northwestern region of Liguria, known for its vegetable-centric cuisine and damp, chilly winters. It has everything — a mix of hearty vegetables, protein-rich beans and an abundance of cheese. The word “incatenata” translates to “chained,” and refers to the way the vegetables, beans, polenta and cheese all gradually meld together during cooking. Serve it as a one-dish meal, with Chianti to drink.
1 rounded cup (7 ounces) dried borlotti (cranberry) beans
Pinch of baking soda
Salt to taste
1 bunch (8 ounces) Tuscan kale (aka lacinato or dinosaur kale)
2 large yellow potatoes
2 medium carrots
1 medium yellow onion
2 small cloves garlic
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for serving
2 cups finely ground polenta (cornmeal)
1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1. Rinse the beans; put them in a large bowl with water to cover by 2 inches and a pinch of baking soda. Let them soak overnight. Drain and rinse; put them in a high-sided saucepan with water to cover by 2 inches and a generous pinch of salt. Bring to a boil. Lower to a simmer and cook until the beans are almost tender but still a bit al dente, 20 minutes. Drain and set aside.
2. Remove and discard the tough stem ends from the kale; cut the leaves crosswise into thin strips (chiffonade). Peel the potatoes; cut them into bite-size cubes. Coarsely chop the carrots, onion and garlic. Combine all the vegetables and the drained beans in a large heavy-bottomed pot; add 2 1/2 quarts cold water. Pour in 1/2 cup olive oil. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat; skim any foam that forms on the surface. Lower the heat to medium or medium-low; simmer gently until the vegetables are tender, 30 minutes.
3. Add the polenta in a slow stream, stirring all the while to prevent lumps from forming. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often to prevent the polenta from sticking to the bottom of the pot, until the polenta is cooked, 35 to 45 minutes. At this point, the polenta should be thickened but still pourable. Much of the vegetable and bean mixture will have turned creamy and become one with the polenta, though some pieces and texture will remain.
4. Ladle the polenta into individual bowls; sprinkle each serving generously with the grated cheese. Finish with a drizzle of really good olive oil, preferably new harvest.
Nutrition information per serving (for 8 servings): 388 calories, 18 g fat, 4 g saturated fat, 12 mg cholesterol, 46 g carbohydrates, 2 g sugar, 12 g protein, 410 mg sodium, 10 g fiber