My Italian brother-in-law’s four-year-old daughter Carolina’s catch phrase of last summer. During this period we were all polenta. Whether we were being slow off the mark in tying her shoelaces or lagging behind on an after-lunch walk, we were without fail called out, shortly prompted by an adorable giggle and grin, for being ‘as slow as a polenta!’ Gone were the snail, slug or tortoise comparisons, in this kid’s book leisurely loitering was to be equated to the slow-cooked Italian dish of yellow grained cornmeal: la Polenta.
Despite the phrase’s questionable origins (most probably an Italian kindergarten classroom), I quickly caught on to this charming little rhyme, using it frequently in jest to my somewhat bemused friends. But apart from providing us with a good chuckle or two it had me thinking. In my eight years of living in Rome I could now, with pride and joy, count myself a connoisseur when it came down to the country’s iconic Pizza and Pasta. I knew the good from the bad, the supreme from the subpar and my happily contented stomach over all this time has been largely thanks to the two dishes combined. Yet with the third big P, the other great Italian culinary staple, Polenta, I was shockingly a virgin. As Carolina and I chanted away at her tune I vowed then and there that with summer at a close and the colder months drawing near, I would make it my mission to discover, devour and delight in Polenta; Italy’s ultimate winter warmer.
For millennia, civilisations have been boiling various grains with water to form a polenta-like fare. The ancient Romans gave the name ‘Pultem’ to a variant made from spelt. Yet yellow polenta, as we know it now, in its full-fledged golden glory, was born during the mid 16th century in the Italian region of Friuli with the arrival of ‘granoturco’ (Turkish grain), more commonly known today as corn.
On embarking on my corn-driven quest, I was intrigued to come across a name for what I sought to become; a ‘polentone’, literally meaning polenta eater! Traditionally a poor man’s meal eaten in the northern regions of the Italian peninsula, this sweet-sounding epithet, I was sad to hear, was often used in insult by southerners referring to inhabitants up north. Although the carb-heavy and low-cost dish rescued many from starvation during the dreaded famines, a diet of only polenta caused an outpour in cases of Pellagra, a disease brought about from the lack of certain vital vitamins. A well-noted self-reminder not to become entirely reliant on the stuff, my own good fortune would have me tucking into polenta in the simplest of forms as well as laden with nourishing toppings that I was only the more joyful to find out entailed infinite possibilities!
As a born and bred Brit, many of my childhood food recollections come served with a side helping or two of our island’s beloved Mashed Potatoes. Yet just as my mother’s piping hot and creamed to perfection buttery spuds had me oozing for more, my school’s plate-up of lukewarm and lumpy gruel, swimming in a puddle of milk, still brings a shiver down the spine. The same goes, as you may well have guessed, with polenta. The key, as any Italian nonna will resolutely confirm, is in the cooking or better yet, in the stirring. The longer the stir and the more vigorous the hand, the better. As this starchy staple takes a good hour on the hob (note to boycott the instant variety), you may want to skip the gym and reserve your energy for a hardcore arm workout on polenta days. Although many recipes call for certain tweaks (some suggest stock, others say milk or cream) the original recipe stands strong and steady in Italian tradition:
2 litres of water
1 tablespoon salt
A generous glug of extra-virgin olive oil
400 g cornmeal – for a very soft consistency
500 g cornmeal – for a softer consistency
600 g cornmeal – for a firm consistency
Cooking time: 1 hour
Bring water to a boil, add in the salt, pour in the cornmeal, next the oil and stir away!
Once the hour is up, the fun begins. Bowl it up and top with a dollop of butter, a handful of parmesan cheese and hey presto; it’s simple perfection. Or get creative with toppings and do as the Italians do; porcini mushrooms, sausage, al sugo (in sauce) and whipped cod (baccalà mantecato) are to name just a few! And if you can’t wait for dinner and crave just a nibble leave the polenta to set and layer thin on a wooden board. Cut into slices, griddle over a medium flame, and serve these bite-sized snacks, topped up, for all to enjoy.
So, with the new year ahead and your stomachs hungry for more, don’t be slow like a polenta but GET MAKING polenta. Discover this dish with me!