(April 17, 2020) If one had to identify Italy with a particular food, what would be your guess?
It’s hard to imagine a world without pizza or pasta, these favorites are the cornerstone of Italy’s rich and intriguing heritage.
However, polenta is also very worthy and does not get the recognition it rightfully deserves. This humble, yet versatile dish originated as food for those less fortunate.
Time has a way of redefining history. Today, polenta is served in the finest establishments all over the world with incredible ingenuity and stunning presentations.
Contrary to popular belief, polenta is a dish and not an ingredient. Polenta refers to a porridge made from ground cornmeal that is combined with a liquid and seasonings that can be served on its own or accompany a specific food.
Authentic polenta is made from a particular corn called eight-row flint. This exclusive variety is not available in your local supermarket but can be ordered online.
For those who want the convenience of every day shopping, I recommend “Bob’s Red Mill - Corn Grits also known as Polenta.”
In order to comprehend the means of making polenta, one must understand what actually happens during the cooking process.
When the endosperm (the outer, starchy part of the corn kernel) comes in contact with hot water, it eventually absorbs liquid, swells and bursts, releasing starch in a development known as gelatinization.
As a result, the grains soften and lose their gritty exterior.
But there is one drawback. The tough pieces of endosperm require lots of time and heat for the water to penetrate it. More specifically, it takes approximately 2 hours for 2 cups of polenta to cook thoroughly. In addition, the mixture must be stirred constantly.
Believe it or not, but adding baking soda to the cooking liquid can reduce the gelatinization process. Proportions vary for the amount of polenta you are cooking and must be measured in moderation.
The subject of what type of cooking vessel should be used is the next subject for discussion.
You will need a heavy-duty pot to protect the polenta from burning. Remember, it takes time to cook polenta and the proper pot is a must.
Choices determine the level of success and details dictate the final outcome.
With that thought in mind, stay away from white cornmeal. The flavor is milder than yellow cornmeal and the white color does not make the visual impression that the yellow cornmeal is notorious for.
Traditional polenta is cooked in water; polenta purists only want the true essence of cornmeal. But the addition of stock and cream will enhance not only the taste but also the texture.
Another common practice is to add cheese at the last minute for an extra burst of flavor. The ratio of polenta to liquid is 1 part polenta to 5 parts liquid.
An array of toppings can be added to the finished product or served as a side. Creativity and an understanding of flavors will come into play. Think of the polenta as a blank canvas and have fun creating your work of art.
In closing, polenta’s straightforwardness and simplicity is indicative of Italy’s culture, but at the same time it can be a mirror of amazing sophistication. Enjoy!
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 sweet onion, minced
4 cloves garlic, minced
2 cup cornmeal
4 cups chicken stock
4 cups heavy cream
2 cups water
few pinches of baking soda
kosher salt to taste
1. In a large heavy-duty pot, heat butter over medium heat. Add onions and garlic and sauté for 5 minutes. Add stock, cream, water, baking soda and salt and bring to a boil. Slowly whisk in cornmeal, reduce heat to a simmer, cover and cook for 1 ½ to 2 hours, stirring regularly.
2. Remove pot from heat and add more salt if necessary. Serve immediately.
4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
5 anchovies, coarsely chopped
5 garlic cloves, thinly sliced
¼ cup finely chopped sweet onions
3 tablespoons capers, drained
1/3 cup pitted kalamata olives, sliced or left whole
2 pints cherry tomatoes, whole
2 teaspoon fresh basil, finely chopped, plus extra for garnishing
½ teaspoon red pepper flakes (optional)
kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
1. Heat olive oil in a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add garlic and onions and sauté for 5 minutes. Add the remaining ingredients and cook uncovered for another 3 to 5 minutes. Set aside until ready to use.
Serve polenta in individual bowls, top with the deconstructed puttanesca and garnish with fresh basil.
This dish can also be served family style. Place the hot polenta in one bowl and the deconstructed puttanesca in another and allow your guests help themselves.
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