Polenta is warming, hearty and filling. Prepare this versatile and cheap ingredient with care and you’re in for a treat: “unique, golden, refuge food,” wrote the journalist Giovanni Arpino. It is made from ground cornmeal mixed with water or milk, then simmered and stirred until it thickens. Polenta is a staple dish in northern Italy — the late cookery writer Marcella Hazan said eating it was “like receiving a sacrament”. She favoured the creamy results achieved by stirring it on the hob for a minute every 10 minutes. You can add garlic, fresh herbs, chilli, mushrooms or meats, or keep it simple with butter and parmesan. Eat it freshly cooked, or allow it to cool and set, before cutting it into slices, grilling, frying or baking. But polenta is best when it acts as a bed for bolder flavours; serve it instead of pasta, rice or potatoes. It’s also gluten-free and can be used as a replacement for flour. Take inspiration from Ottolenghi, who has a recipe for cake that combines orange and quick-cook polenta.
Lots of choice
Polenta is easy to find and costs around £1 per 100g. There are two common types: fine-grained, pale Veneto polenta and large-grained golden-yellow Lombard or Piedmontese polenta. Both have a reputation for taking a long time to cook and needing lots of attention. Part-cooked instant polenta, on the other hand, needs just five minutes, while the ready-made stuff, sold in solid blocks, is totally fuss-free: just slice and heat up.
Stir it up
Simmer the grain in 4-5 times its volume of water or milk (or half water, half milk) for about 45 minutes — use less liquid for a firmer polenta. Pour the polenta into the water in a thin, steady stream, whisking all the time to ensure there are no lumps. It was traditionally made in a paiolo: a wide, round-bottomed, copper pan, but any heavy-bottomed pan will do. And take care when it’s cooking: the polenta can bubble up, so use a long wooden spoon and cover your arms.
The Italian-born food writer Anna Del Conte recommends baking polenta: stir it in the pan for 10 minutes with 4-5 times its volume of water, then transfer it to a well-buttered dish. Cover with foil or greaseproof paper and bake for an hour at 180C. The top will have a chewy crust, while the interior will have remained soft.
One more thing…
“Polenta has been acclaimed, written and sung about and altogether celebrated more than any other Italian food,” wrote Del Conte. In the 19th century, societies were formed to celebrate the many virtues of polenta: Paris’s Ordine dei Polentoni boasted Emile Zola among its members.