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March 02, 2007

How to be a polentone: the secret to great polenta

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This may come as a surprise to non-Italians, but "polentone" is actually an insult.  "Big polenta" or "polenta eater" may seem like mild stuff, but it's a pejorative term used by southern Italians to raise the hackles of their northern compatriots. Think of describing a French person as a "frog" or a German as a "kraut," insults that are also based on food preferences. The northern equivalent for southerners, "terrone," also lacks a suitable translation, but is equally, if not more, insulting.

The tension between northern and southern Italians may surprise many non-Italians, who tend to think of Italians as a homogeneous mass.  This notion coudn't be further from the truth, especially in the minds of Italians themselves.  This is, after all, the country that invented "campanilismo," extreme devotion not merely to one's region or city, but to the area within earshot of the local campanile, or church bell tower.  In Rome, for example, your typical aventino believes that your average esquilina may as well be from another planet, not a different hill.  You can imagine, then, the chasm that exists between a napoletano and a milanese.

This tension manifests itself most noticeably in three areas: politics, soccer, and food.  Italian politics is a muddle, but it also most explicitly reflects the differences between the regions.  The Lega Nord, or Northern League, has risen to prominence by giving voice to northern dissatisfaction with the south.  At its most extreme, some in this coalition have even called for independence for Padania, their name for the northern third of Italy.  This party is not a marginal one.  It holds seats in both the Chamber of Deputies and the Senate, and helped to bring Silvio Berlusconi to power, for which it was awarded positions in cabinet.  The League's message has softened over time -- it now emphasizes decentralization over independence -- but its popularity testifies to rifts in the belpaese.

Soccer is a notorious vehicle for sublimating broader social, political and religious tensions.  One need look no further than the rivalries between Real Madrid and FC Barcelona or Celtic and Rangers, proxies for the battles between Castillians and Catalonians and Catholics and Protestants respectively (How Soccer Explains the World, by Franklin Foer explores this idea in depth).  Italian soccer is no different.  In A Season with Verona, expat British author Tim Parks chronicles the highs and lows of following his favourite team, Hellas Verona, up and down Italy for one season.  The book offers insights into the strained relationship between north and south, filtered through the lens of the beautiful game and the tifosi obsessed with it.  While visiting Catania, which, being in Sicily, is about as far south as you can go in Italy, Parks is struck by a newspaper editorial lamenting the return of the Veronesi.  "'We must form a common front against these northern barbarians," the article blares.  Why the harsh reception?  Because at the last match, when volcanic eruptions from Mount Etna threatened the Sicilian city, the Veronese fans brought banners saying Forza Etna ['Go Etna']."

Politics and soccer aside, we come to food.  Anyone familiar with Italian cuisine is well aware that "Italian food" is not a monolithic entity.  It is, rather, a collection of regional cuisines, many of which bear almost no relation to one another.  The Arab and North African roots of the Sicilian kitchen, for example, are completely foreign to the Austrian-influenced dishes of Trentino Alto Adige.  There are some ties that loosely bind Italy's diverse culinary traditions -- wheat pasta being the most obvious -- but all regions pride themselves on the distinctive ingredients and techniques that distinguish their local fare.

Throughout much of the north, one of those traditions is polenta.  Polenta is textbook Italian -- a rustic dish with peasant roots that's adaptable to a limitless variety of sauces and preparations and is a snap to make.  Great.  Sort of.

We've always had one problem with it, you see: we never really liked it.  For all its strengths, we always found polenta bland, with a texture reminiscent of wallpaper glue.  Rachel and I tried to overcome our disdain repeatedly.  At least once each winter we'd buy a package, spend the obligatory twenty minutes stirring, be underwhelmed by the finished dish, then lament wasting a perfectly good sauce on something other than a pasta or risotto.

That all changed after reading Heat, Bill Buford's wondrous tale of life in Mario Batali's kitchen.  We can relate to his frustration at trying to prepare a bowl of polenta worthy of his Italian restaurant experience:  "[T]he polenta she made was a revelation," he enthuses, "these crunchy stone-ground corn grains tasted only of themselves: an intense, sweet, highly extracted cornness."  He dismisses his own efforts at polenta as "nothing most of us are able to remember."

Buford's epiphany occurs in the Babbo kitchen.  After months of struggling to cope with the pace of a professional kitchen, he finds his groove, and soon begins to notice the many other tasks being performed around him, including the making of polenta.  The secret to great polenta was no secret at all; it had been hidden in plain sight the entire time.

The first secret is to use quality cornmeal, preferably stone ground, not the instant sawdust available in most grocery stores.  It's not as hard to find as you think.  Bob's Red Mill is a quality organic cornmeal available in most natural food stores, and even in some mass market grocery stores.  We buy ours at Lively Live Fine Foods in the St. Lawrence Market.

The second secret is time, at least three hours.  This might seem like a lot, especially if you're used to instant polenta, which requires the sort of constant attention normally reserved for delinquent children.  With real cornmeal, however, there's almost no stirring.  I now make polenta while watching TV, or at least I could if I didn't spend most of my time proudly watching my polenta blurp away like some kind of demented father.  But I only stir it briefly every twenty minutes or so, I swear.

After three hours, cornmeal is miraculously transformed.  The most noticeable difference is colour, where bright gold has paled to soft white. Each grain has now swelled up to six times its original size, and, most importantly, the judicious application of heat has resulted in caramelization.  The result is polenta that is creamy, substantial and mildly sweet.

Now that you've got a delicious pot of polenta, you're probably kicking yourself for not having a sauce ready.  That's okay.  You're a bad person, but your polenta forgives you. Add more water, if necessary, and simmer it some more.  Don't worry, it can take it.  In fact, it might even taste better for it.

For this post, we adapted one of our favourite pasta sauces, Wanda and Giovanna Tornabene's Carnival of Bell Peppers.  The sauce is usually made without sausage, but if you've got a couple of lamb sausages in the freezer from Cumbrae's, one of Toronto's finest butchers, this is a great time to use them.  The sweetness of slow-cooked bell peppers picks up on the caramelized notes of the polenta, while the lamb sausage is a savoury contrast that adds a bit of substance and texture to the dish.

Saucing risotto, pasta, and polenta is something of a shadowy puzzle to non-Italians.  Knowing which sauce pairs with which starch and shape is second nature to most Italians, who have absorbed these rules during the course of a lifetime at the table.  For most non-Italians, the arcana behind such decisions is lost.  My rule of thumb for polenta is this: if the sauce works well with risotto, flat, broad noodles (ie. pappardelle), or long tubes (ie. rigatoni or penne) then it's probably good with polenta.  That means ragus and sauces with large pieces of meat or vegetables in them.  For our next polenta, I'm going to try gorgonzola dolce and caramelized pears.

Before you top your polenta with your sauce, be sure to season the polenta with salt, pepper, and parmesan.  A pat of butter adds richness and creaminess.  Season aggresively.  Even properly cooked polenta needs some help.  If you don't believe me, try this experiment: before finishing the polenta, taste it.  Now add some salt, pepper, parmesan, and butter, and taste it again.  That's better, isn't it?  Rachel and I find that we prefer lots of the first three ingredients and a tiny pat of butter.

Now it's time to eat.  Mangiamo!

Polenta fuori misura

Patience is essential for this dish.  If you think forty minutes is plenty, think again.  The wait is worth it.  Sauce is a very personal decision, but think ragus and sauces with large pieces of meat or vegetables in them.  Be bold with seasonings when finishing the polenta.  Do not be afraid to let the polenta cook longer than three hours.  As long as there's enough water, it can be simmered for hours and hours.

200 g best quality cornmeal (approx. 1 generous cup)
1 L water (approx. 4 cups), plus more, as needed
15 g butter (approx.
1 tbsp)
salt
pepper
parmesan, grated

Bring water to a boil over medium heat.  Reduce heat to low and add polenta in a steady stream, whisking constantly.  The mixture will be very loose, likely soupy.  Fret not.

Adjust heat to a very low simmer.  The polenta should not simmer vigorously, just bubble slowly.  Stir occasionally, every fifteen to tween minutes.

When the polenta starts to thicken, loosen with approximately 250 ml (one cup) of scalding hot water.  Repeat as necessary for the first two hours.  Reduce water by half thereafter until complete.

When ready, add salt, pepper and parmesan, all to taste.  Be aggressive.  Finish with a pat of butter.  Top with your sauce of choice and sprinkle with additional parmesan.

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Comments

Lisa (Homesick Texan)

Oh my...it's been too long since I've done this. I was on a big polenta kick a few years ago and made it this way (the pat of butter is key!). Thanks for the reminder--I know what I'm making this weekend. And thanks for the link to St. Lawrence Market--I keep hearing such cool things about it!

Ivonne

My compliments to the chef! Congratulations on doing a wonderful job of navigating Italy's treacherous political/football/food waters.

Polenta is a treasured dish in our household and I think you've done a wonderful job of presenting it as the treasure that it is.

McAuliflower

Oh- warm, creamy... I'm so glad I too can now taste polenta beyond "mush". Good post! I have enjoyed it only plain in the past- but I'm now inspired to sauce it up.

There was a great moment in one of Michael Chiarello's cooking shows when he poured out a huge pot's worth of polenta on the wooden table for his guests to eat from. The idea was that everyone would scoop a portion in front of themselves, and then top it how they wanted.

Seeing him just pour it out like that made the little kid in me light up! I'd like to have a polenta flinging party like that at least once in my lifetime. :)

Susan from Food "Blogga"

Heat was such an engaging read. I remember vividly Buford's description about the lenghty cooking time for polenta. Sounds and looks like your patience produced a heavenly polenta--velvety and delicious.

Ian

Sounds delicious. I've never had much success making polenta myself.

I was wondering... is there any real difference between polenta and, say, grits?

almost vegetarian

The good news, for me, is that my in-laws are Italian. The great news: One is from the south, the other is from the north. The totally amazing news: Every time either (or, better yet, both) cook.

The food is always a treat with one, small, exception: I do not like polenta. Did I say "not like"? I mean loathe. In every form: Loose, fried, even masquerading as grits. I just do not have a taste for the stuff.

All I ask is that you never tell the in-laws. I'd hate to see the dinner train (especially with it's amazing tiramisu ending) stop. My loss, I'm sure.

Cheers!

bea at La tartine gourmande

Ah yes, frog, rosbeef for the Brits too. I once asked what were the other nationalities in English, pejorative and my friends were relunctant to educate me into them. I forgot actually.

But this polenta looks delicieuse!

rob

Lisa, the pat of butter really does make all the difference, doesn't it? Just a tiny drop of fat and dairy brings so much out in term of flavour and mouthfeel.

Ivonne, that's very kind of you to say. Respecting a country's culinary traditions is easy to do when the traditions taste so damn good.

There's something very comforting about sharing a bowl of polenta as you describe, McAuliflower. It's a dish that lends itself to communal dining, which is, in many ways, what makes most meal so great anyways.

Susan, Heat is one of the best food books to come out in a long, long time. Buford's enthusiasm is contagious, and the story is gripping. Not to mention the fact that so many of the protagonists just seem so much larger than life.

Ian, the cornmeal used to make polenta and grits is identical. Polenta is traditionally made with water, though I think the cooking liquid for grits may vary. Can anyone enlighten us?

Almost vegetarian, I can completely understand your dislike for polenta. It can be VERY bland. We add large amounts of salt and pepper, and it makes a difference, as does the long cooking time. That said, everyone has dishes they just don't like.

Bea, isn't it amazing how cultures judge each other based on food choices? They're so strongly imprinted on us that we view dissimilar tastes with disdain. Of course, I love frog, roastbeef, and sauerkraut, so maybe all it takes is a little understanding.

Nick

While technically grits can be made from coarse ground cornmeal just like polenta, grits in the American South are traditionally hominy grits.

The corn kernel is treated with lye to dissolve the bran - the outer skin of the kernel. The kernel then grows to about twice its original size. The result is dried and then coarse ground to make hominy grits. Hominy grits never really break down as much as corn grits or polenta, so they are "grittier" grits.

Pia

Polenta? I adore it. My mother, a blonde, lily-and-rose skinned South Italian, cooks it with olive oil and peperoncino. Delicious!

Erielle

Did you try the pear and gorgonzola topping yet? I'm on a polenta kick these days, and looking for more toppings.

Last night I let my polenta cook for 90 minutes, but I didn't start it early enough to get three hours in. It was definitely silkier than usual, but next time I will let it get to three hours. I'm so excited.

cobalt

Grit are also healthier than straight up polenta. Polenta doesn't offer any niacin. A trick I've always heard and used although I'm sure it doesn't really matter is to stir the Polenta in the same direction.

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