Polenta: an Italian specialty

A third Italian “P”.

Who thinks that Italy is famous just for pizza and pasta is definitely wrong. These specialties are just the most famous and worldwide spread because probably more advertised. There is a third Italian specialty that joins the other two P-starting ones: the polenta!

What is polenta?

Polenta is a cornmeal porridge, thus made by mixing cornmeal, water and salt. Maybe originating from northeastern Italy (the regions of Friuli and Veneto), but now typical of northern Italy in general, polenta was originally made with other kinds of flour – barley, spelt, millet, buckwheat, rye – since corn was imported from the New World beginning from the 16th century.

Polenta: more ancient than we think

Polenta is a very old dish. Its name come from the Latin puls, since Romans too were used to eating it, even though it was made of spelt flour, as well as Greeks had their polenta made of barley flour.

Very nutrient and cheap, this food was eaten by northern Italy peasants who needed a lot of energy to work in the fields. Polenta even replaced bread, once that this had become too expensive. Accompanied by pork meat, potatoes and legumes, it has historically been a humble food and usually associated with wintery season, when our body needs more nutrient and energetic food.

Baccalà alla Vicentina

Baccalà alla Vicentina: a dish native to Vicenza made from dried unsalted cod served on or with white, soft polenta.

How polenta is prepared

Polenta can be eaten by itself or, more often, with other ingredients such as butter, meat, fish, vegetables. Preparing polenta is not so difficult, you just need to be strong. It is usually prepared by adding cornmeal little by little to water boiling in a paiolo, a cupper pot traditionally used to cook polenta.

The ratio of water and cornmeal is 3:1. In this phase, it should be better to use a whisk to stir, in order not to have lumps. REMEMBER: the finer the ground is, the thinner and creamier polenta will be, but lumps are more likely to create; on the contrary, a coarse ground polenta will have a thick consistency, but there is no risk to have lumps.

Then, add a little bit of salt. What is left to do is nothing but simmering and stirring with a wooden spoon for 40-45 minutes until the polenta detaches itself from the pot. In that moment, it’s ready!

How you can taste polenta

Polenta can be tasted in the simplest way, that is the result of the recipe above, usually cut in little rectangles when it cools down. They can be fried, baked or grilled (even the leftovers can be) and is a really good alternative to bread or pasta. More often, it is served with butter – that can also be flavoured – and cheese, like bitto, casera (two cheeses from Valtellina, a valley in northern Lombardy), but also gorgonzola, montasio or asiago (they are all semi-hard cheeses that melt once added in the hot polenta).

Regional recipes with polenta

Since polenta is consumed in different regions of northern Italy, it can be prepared in different ways, it depends on the place you go. You can taste:

  • Polenta taragna. Made of a mixture of cornmeal and buckwheat flour, it has a brown colour and it is typical of the area of Bergamo, Brescia and Valtellina (Lombardy). It is usually served with butter and cheese and it has a creamy consistency;
  • Polenta e osei. Typical in Veneto and Lombardy regions, this is polenta with songbirds;
  • Polenta concia. This is typical of Aosta Valley and the northern Piedmont regions. Meaning “oily” polenta, this recipe is a fat one since butter and cheese, like Toma or Fontina (respectively, a Piedmont’s and Aosta valley’s cheese) are added in a quite big amount;
  • Polenta e ciccioli. Eaten in all northern Italy, polenta is served with ciccioli, the solid part of the pig fat derived from its processing through poaching. They can be added while cooking polenta or later;
  • Polenta e missultin. It’s eaten in the area of the Como Lake since it is served with a fish that grows into the lake.

These are the most common recipes, mostly of northern Italy, where polenta is more eaten. Other recipes have polenta as their ingredient, such as the sweet polenta made in Tuscany with chestnut flour.

Try your hand at polenta! You don’t necessarily need a paiolo. Take a pot with a thick bottom and the problem is solved! Moreover, if you don’t want to make any effort to constantly stir, you can buy an instant polenta and you will have it cooked in a few minutes. The important thing is that it’s best served with a sauce. Whenever meat, vegetables, legumes, fish or mushrooms are cooked in a sauce, polenta is a really good complement, as it absorbs the sauce and, with it, its flavour.

Anyhow, since polenta has a neutral flavour, it’s really versatile and lends itself to several recipes. Just follow your tastes and culinary creativity!

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