Benvenuti to this year’s first Cucina Conversations post and the first “basics” post of the year! It’s been a long while since I posted a “basics” post, so I’m glad to be sharing another Italian staple recipe again. This month, we have chosen comfort food as our topic and my contribution is one of my favorites: polenta. Although comfort food is often associated with the colder months of the year, it truly doesn’t have a season, and the dishes that encompass this category are different for everyone, which makes this topic a particular favorite of mine. I enjoy learning what other people consider their comfort foods and the stories behind them. The bloggers of Cucina Conversations have some wonderful comfort food recipes this month accompanied by their own personal stories of why their chosen recipe is among their favorites. My list of comfort foods is long and varied, but it’s polenta that resides firmly at the top. It even beats out pasta which makes me feel like I’m admitting high culinary heresy, but it’s true: I love polenta more than pasta. This is probably because in my family, polenta wasn’t made as often as pasta, so it was always a special treat when it appeared at the dinner table. Polenta also reminds me of my paternal nonna Ada and her sister-in-law, my zia Ida, both of whom knew how to turn out a beautiful pot of polenta. I’ll never forget how my zia Ida would serve it topped with braised quail–still one of my favorite dishes to this day. During my childhood summers spent at my paternal grandparent’s house in the Veneto, I always knew I would be eating polenta in its various forms: yellow or white (my particular favorite), piping hot and thick right out of the pot, or cooled, cut into squares, and fried or grilled until the outside layer turned crisp and the interior was hot and luscious. Earlier this month, when Peter and I returned to my grandparent’s village in the Veneto, we were invited to have lunch at my friend’s parents’ house where signora Luisa made a big pot of polenta and served it with a succulent venison stew redolent of rosemary. And the day before we left Italy, we spent the day with our friends in Venezia, where our first stop was at a a traditional bàcaro, owned by a dear friend of theirs, who served us cicchetti (small snacks), among them grilled squares of white polenta topped with a sublime baccala mantecato (whipped salt cod).
Polenta has existed long before corn was brought to Europe from the Americas. Corn was not cultivated in Italy until the sixteenth century. Before then, polenta was made with a variety of ground cereals, grains, and legumes such as farro, emmer, chestnuts, millet, buckwheat, spelt, or chickpeas. Polenta made with these raw ingredients fed both the Roman legionnaires and the poor for centuries when there was little else being cultivated or available to the less well-off. Today, polenta is made almost exclusively with corn, although the northern regions of Lombardia and Trentino-Alto Adige still make polenta consisting of a mix of cornmeal and buckwheat flours. It is no longer considered subsistence food, but it is still part of Italy’s culinary canon of the cucina povera.
There tends to be some confusion surrounding polenta: what is it exactly? what is used to make it? is it the same (or different) than grits? Fortunately, all these questions are easily answered. I will tell you what polenta is not. Polenta is not an ingredient–it is the name of the finished dish. The ingredient used to make polenta is medium or coarse cornmeal (preferably stone-ground). When packages are labeled with the word “polenta”, it means that the grind of the cornmeal is suitable to make polenta, but the packaging does not necessarily need to list “polenta”. As long as you are buying a medium or coarsely-ground cornmeal, you can make a successful pot of polenta with it.
The type of corn used to make the cornmeal for polenta makes a significant difference in the appearance, texture, and flavor of the finished dish. In Italy, the corn grown for polenta is known as flint corn. It is a hard corn and tougher to mill. The corn grown for grits is known as dent corn, which is more tender and easier to mill. Flint corn, once cooked, retains its texture more so than dent corn, which is immediately visible in properly cooked polenta–it is both smooth and beaded in texture. Grits, once cooked, are also textured, but less so due to dent corn’s more tender kernels. Both flint and dent corn have pronounced corn flavor, however flint corn has stronger mineral notes which are less prevalent in dent corn, so polenta’s flavor will be more complex.
Even milling technique impacts the flavor of finished polenta. In Italy, flint corn is milled using a technique known as “reduction milling” where the corn is passed through the mill multiple times until an even-textured cornmeal is achieved. An even-textured cornmeal results in an evenly-cooked polenta. What sets reduction milling apart is that the slower milling process creates less friction and therefore less heat, which preserves the flavor profile of the corn resulting in a flavorful finished polenta. While any good-quality medium or coarse cornmeal from a reputable brand will work for polenta, there are also heirloom cornmeal varieties on the market, the two most popular being otto file and biancoperla.
Then there is cooking technique. I have read articles that give instructions on cooking polenta in the oven, in a double-boiler, and in the microwave (*cringe*). I do not know if these methods work, and frankly, I have no interest in finding out. When it comes to cooking polenta, I am a purist: I stand at the stovetop and stir it almost constantly for almost an hour. Yes, it’s a long time to be at the stove, but it’s worth every minute. I draw the line at two peculiar “rules” (or superstitions?) that polenta must be stirred using a wooden spoon and only in one direction. I’ve used both a wooden spoon and a silicone spoon with a stainless steel handle, and have stirred many a pot of polenta both clockwise and counter-clockwise, all with successful results.
There are three elements to pay attention to in order to make a proper pot of polenta: liquid, ratio, and cooking time. I grew up seeing polenta made only with water as the cooking liquid and it is the only cooking liquid I use. However, there are some recipes that use milk or chicken stock as the cooking liquid. Like the alternate cooking methods for polenta listed above, I have no desire to cook polenta in either milk or chicken stock because I believe the flavors of each liquid detract from the corn flavor that should shine in the finished dish. This is my personal preference, so feel free to experiment here. The ratio of liquid to cornmeal is critical: 5 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal is a good formula to keep handy. A proper recipe from a reliable source will always have the correct ratio of liquid to cornmeal. Polenta needs to be made using plenty of liquid for the cornmeal to fully hydrate and expand as it cooks. Using less liquid will not fully hydrate the cornmeal and will result in undercooked and gritty-textured polenta. And like pasta, the cooking liquid needs to be well-salted before adding in the cornmeal. The cooking time is an element where many people go wrong–namely, they don’t cook it long enough–so attention to detail is important here. As the cornmeal hydrates, it will swell and thicken, and as it continues to cook, you will feel more resistance as you stir. It will take close to an hour for polenta to achieve the correct consistency. Once fully cooked, polenta will start to pull away cleanly from the sides of the pot and should have a consistency that is smooth, creamy, and slowly flowing. With some practice and attention to the details, you will be able to enjoy this classic Italian comfort food whenever you want.
The Cucina Conversations bloggers are sharing their favorite comfort foods on their blogs this week, so be sure to visit to see their recipes. Francesca has made one of my favorite pasta dishes, tonnarelli cacio e pepe; Rosemarie made lemon-infused deep-fried semolina squares, a specialty of Piemonte; Carmen baked Sicilian scacce, savory hand pies filled with eggplant; Marialuisa cooked her favorite soup, pasta in brodcaccia; Lisa has made a comforting pot of pasta e fagioli, and Daniela made one of my husband’s favorites, potato gnocchi with tomato sauce.
Enjoy our recipes! A presto!
Adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan
7 cups (1.75 liters) cold water
1 Tablespoon (17 grams) salt
1 ⅔ cups (286 grams) coarsely ground cornmeal
Bring the water to a rolling boil in a large, heavy pot. Add the salt and stir to dissolve completely. Return the water to a rolling boil over medium-high heat. Add in the cornmeal in a thin, steady stream while whisking constantly. Keep the water boiling as you add in the cornmeal. Once all the cornmeal has been added to the water, switch to a long-handled wooden or silicone spoon and stir constantly and thoroughly, making sure to reach the spoon into the bottom and sides of the pot to incorporate all the cornmeal. Lower the heat to medium-low but keep the mixture bubbling gently but steadily. Stir continuously for 40-45 minutes, or up to 1 hour if necessary. The cornmeal will thicken as it cooks and you will have increased resistance as you stir it. Once the polenta begins to pull cleanly away from the sides of the pot and has reached a creamy, smooth, and flowing consistency, it is ready. Add in a tablespoon of unsalted butter if desired and stir in until it melts in completely. Serve hot.