Polenta pasticciata, in "Italian Home Cooking: 125 Recipes to Comfort Your Soul" by Julia della Croce (Kyle Books). Credit: Hirsheimer & HamiltonCorn polenta has traveled the globe to become a staple in world-class restaurants. Yet for more than 400 years, it sustained the peoples of Italy's poor northeastern regions. Its origins go back even further, to the pulmentum of the Romans that was a mainstay of the commoner. Prior to the 17th century -- before corn was transplanted to Italy from the New World -- this porridge was made from hulled and crushed grains of various kinds, including farro (also known in English as "emmer"), barley and millet as well as chestnut, fava bean or chickpea flour.
Polenta as a staple
After maize took firm root in the soils of northern Italy, it became the primary staple. It wasn't eaten fresh but rather dried and ground into polenta. For four centuries, it alone kept the wolf from the door for the common people in Veneto and Lombardy. In the 1800s, it became fashionable for the wealthy to eat it until it was ubiquitous at every meal, accompanying virtually every dish, as bread does today in other regions.
The poor ate it plain -- there was often little else to eat. The upper class added condiments to it or made it into elaborate baked dishes called pasticci. Eventually, cornmeal infiltrated central and southern Italy, including the island of Sardinia, where my ancestors ate it with tomatoey stewed lamb tripe or layered with meat sauce and sheep's cheese, much like lasagna, in a baked dish called polenta pasticciata.
In its simplest guise, polenta is served "loose" as a side dish, like its close cousin, the grits of the American south. It can be flavored simply with a dribble of olive oil or butter and Parmigiano cheese for a dish called polenta unta. Cooks in Italy's Alpine regions like to slather it with soft cheeses such as runny gorgonzola dolce or taleggio. Often, it provides a bed for soaking up the tasty juices of cooked meats (such as sausages) or vegetables, for instance sautéed mushrooms. Or it might be turned out onto a marble slab, allowed to set, then cut into pieces that have countless uses. When fried or grilled, they become crostini di polenta, polenta "toasts." For pasticciata, the squares are layered with a sauce and topped with cheese before baking, much like lasagna.
Traditional and modern cooking methods
Cooking polenta in the traditional copper paiolo is still a daily ritual in some parts of the polenta belt (Veneto, Piedmont, Trentino-Alto Adige, and Lombardy), though restaurant chefs typically replace the wooden stirring tool, called a bastone, with an electric stirring mechanism that attaches to the pot. For home cooking, a sturdy wooden spoon will do, provided it has a long handle to prevent splattering and/or burning your hand. (The whisk is not commonly used in Italy, but I have found that a heavy professional grade one is ideal for turning out a fine, lump-free polenta.) You'll also need a heavy-bottomed pot.
But the real secret to perfect results lies not so much in the equipment as in the method. Continual stirring in one direction (clockwise, according to tradition) transforms cornmeal into billows of creamy golden polenta. The addition of the grains in a slow, steady stream a pioggia, "like rain," assures that they are incorporated smoothly. If the polenta seems to be drying out before it is cooked, a little boiling water is added to keep it soft and easy to stir. Polenta is ready when it pulls away easily from the sides of the pan with the spoon.
Polenta may be yellow or white, depending on the maize variety. Both are milled into fine or coarse grinds. The fine type is preferred for loose polenta. The coarse grind produces pleasantly gritty, rustic-style polenta that the Italians say can be sensed sotto i denti, "under the teeth." It is ideal for cutting into pieces, as described earlier. (Note that the American type of cornmeal typically used for muffins or cornbread is not interchangeable with polenta; it is a different product entirely and will produce an inedible, cement-like porridge if cooked in water.)
Nowadays, there is another factor to consider. "Instant" polenta, which is pre-cooked before it is dehydrated, has virtually replaced the long-cooking kind -- even in Italy. Although one can get it on the table much more quickly, it doesn't compare to the richly flavored, silky original that can take 40 minutes or more to cook. Like so many "new and improved" foods, convenience is put ahead of quality and flavor. However, quick-cooking polenta does work well in dishes with several components, so you can have success making my maternal grandmother Giulia's polenta pasticciata with either variety. Nonna Giulia Esu died long before I was born, but her recipe for this provincial Sardinian dish was one of her jewels that was passed down by my mother.
Nonna Giulia's Polenta "Lasagna" With Pork and Red Wine Ragu
Note: The finest pecorino (sheep) cheeses are produced in Sardinia, Lazio and Tuscany. You can find the young, semi-soft varieties at most fine cheesemongers; alternatively, you can substitute Spanish Manchego as directed.
Prep time: 45 minutes
Cook time: About 1 hour
Total time: About 2 1/4 hours
Yield: 8 servings
For the sauce:
6 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
1 onion, minced
1 large clove garlic, minced
1 carrot, chopped
1 small celery stalk with leaves, chopped
1 teaspoon pulverized fennel seeds
1 pound ground pork
1/2 cup good-quality dry red wine
3 tablespoons tomato paste
1 (35-ounce) can plum tomatoes, drained, seeded and chopped, juices reserved
3 tablespoons minced fresh basil leaves
1 teaspoon fine sea salt
For the polenta:
7 1/2 cups water
1 tablespoon kosher salt
2 cups fine- or coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta or "quick-cook" polenta
Olive oil for preparing work surface and baking dish
1/2 pound semi-soft pecorino such as Fior di Sardegna (or Manchego aged three to six months), shredded
For the sauce:
1. Warm the oil in a skillet. Stir in the onion, garlic, carrot and celery and sauté over medium-low heat until vegetables are soft, 12 to 15 minutes.
2. Add the fennel seeds, pork and continue to sauté until the meat colors lightly, stirring occasionally, about 4 minutes. Stir in the wine and allow to evaporate (about 1 minute).
3. Dilute the tomato paste in a few tablespoons of the reserved canned-tomato juices and add it to the skillet, followed by the tomatoes with another 1/2 cup of the reserved juices, basil and salt. Stir well. Partially cover and simmer over the lowest possible heat for 1 hour, stirring frequently. The sauce should become thick and fragrant. If it seems to be drying out, add a few more tablespoons of the reserved tomato juices.
For the polenta:
1. While the ragu is simmering, bring the water to a boil in a large saucepan. (Keep a kettle of boiling water on the back burner should you need extra.) Add the salt.
2. Stirring constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon, add the polenta in a slow, constant stream to prevent lumps from forming. Simmer, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick and creamy and pulls away from the side of the pan, about 40 minutes. If you are using quick-cook polenta, you may need to add a little boiling water to ensure that it doesn't get too thick. (You can also cook it longer than the instructions specify in order to obtain a creamy consistency -- up to 20 minutes or so, adding more boiling water as needed.)
3. Use a rubber spatula dipped into hot water to spread the polenta out into a rectangle about 1/4-inch thick. Let set until cooled completely and firm, about 15 minutes. Cut into even 3-inch-by-4-inch rectangles; set aside. Lightly oil a 9-inch-by-13-inch baking dish.
1. Heat the oven to 450 F.
2. Arrange half the polenta pieces on the bottom of the baking dish. Top them with half of the sauce and spread to cover. Sprinkle half the cheese over the sauce. Repeat with another layer of sauce, followed by the remaining cheese. Bake until heated through and the cheese is golden brown, 15 to 20 minutes.
3. Let stand for 10 minutes. Cut into pieces and serve.
Copyright 2016 Julia della Croce via Zester Daily and Reuters Media Express