Falsetti: Classic Italian? Try polenta, not pasta
Grits, pon haus, harina — to paraphrase Shakespeare, a corn porridge by any other name would taste as good. Since it was introduced from the Americas, corn has found popularity throughout the world. This is especially true in Italy.
Polenta, a classic Italian dish, is basically dried, coarsely ground corn, which is rehydrated and flavored when cooked. At first it might seem strange that Italians took so readily to a corn dish, but in fact, there is a long history of cooking grains. Before the introduction of corn, the Romans used grains such as spelt or millet, which were ground and then cooked into a porridge. This dish was called “pullem” in Latin.
The modern version of polenta made from corn is popular throughout Italy but especially in the northern regions of Lombardy and Piedmont. Because it is associated with everyday family meals, it is not usually found on restaurant menus. This is a shame, as it is a highly versatile dish. It can be served warm as a porridge, or it can be cooled and then sliced and fried, grilled or baked.
Because polenta is made with coarsely ground corn meal, it takes a bit of time to cook. It requires some attention, but constant stirring is not necessary. Pre-soaking the polenta in its cooking liquid for a couple of hours reduces the cooking time by half.
When choosing the cornmeal to make polenta, look for a medium or coarse grind. Some stores carry cornmeal labeled specifically for polenta. Avoid “instant” polenta because the finished dish won’t compare to the real thing.
The simplest way to serve it is topped with your favorite marinara or ragù sauce and grated cheese. When I have time, I let it cool and then grill slices topped with sauce, sheet-pan roasted vegetables and grated mozzarella. Polenta also is a good substitute for gluten-free Italian-style dishes.
5 cups water
1 cup medium or coarse cornmeal/polenta
2 teaspoons salt or to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra-virgin olive oil
Combine the water and cornmeal in a large pot, cover and let soak overnight or for several hours. When ready to cook, bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
Continue to cook until the polenta thickens enough that it starts to spit. Lower the heat to prevent spitting and continue to cook, stirring with a spoon or silicone spatula. Scrape the bottom of the pan to prevent scorching.
Cook until the polenta becomes thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan, about 30 minutes. The texture should be soft and creamy and just barely flowing. Add the salt and stir in the butter or olive oil.
Serve immediately with the sauce of your choice or scrape into a baking pan and chill until set. The polenta can then be cut into pieces for grilling, baking or frying.
— Julie Falsetti, a York native, comes from a long line of good cooks. Her column, From Scratch, runs twice monthly in The York Dispatch food section. Reach her with questions and comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.