To say Polenta is a staple in Italy’s Northeast most region understates its popularity. Veneto Friuli Venezia Giulia boarders Austria, Slovenia (former Yugoslavia), and the Adriatic Sea. Families would gather around their fireplaces nightly for warmth while they prepared polenta over the open flame in a special copper pot called “paiolo”. The pot permanently resided by their fireplace.
The odd shaped pot was praised for its design and allegedly its ability to help minimize lumps. Long wooden spoons were used to stir but also helped prevent scratching. Traditional Italian including me still exclusively recommend the use of long wooden spoons.
At a time when wheat flour was only affordable for the elite, milled corn cooked with only water and salt was a substitute. Polenta was an inexpensive add-on to stretch meals. It not only served as a starter but as a side dish. Leftovers flattened, sliced, and fried, served as a bread.
Among the many applications, polenta would also be mounded, a crater formed, and filled with meals, poultry, and sauces. Mom Lucia would make her polenta and place it in the center of her large wooden board usually reserved to make her homemade pasta, ravioli, and bread. She would fill its crater with her Hunter’s Stew, Chicken or Rabbit cacciatore. We slid our portions of polenta and stew over and ate directly off the board. Every time I read this I pause. I am blessed with the memories!
Polenta is simply corn meal simmered in salted water (or another liquid) until water is absorbed and the cornmeal thickens.
There are a couple of important considerations. Cornmeal needs to be added to boiling salted water in slow drizzle while stirring to prevent lumping and to prevent mixture from sticking to the sides.
A heavy bottom pot is required and as discussed above; wooden spoons work best. After many batches, I developed an easy “Tap and Stir” technique (below). Once learned, I think you will find it easy foolproof.
Enjoy the versatility of Polenta and the variety of add-ins and many flavors.
If you simply prefer or have an application that would benefit from a lighter and fluffier polenta, try Bob's Red Mill® POLANTA ORGANIC CORN GRITS. It is partially de-germinated (not whole grain) and medium ground. It will also cook a little faster. I think resulting polenta has less character and flavor.
Water and Salt: 3 to 1, water to cornmeal. For 2 cups of cornmeal, simmer 6 cups and 1-tablespoons Kosher salt. Have some additional hot water ready if needed.
Ready to slowly add and stir cornmeal…
My favorite technique to create a smooth polenta without lumps is to place cornmeal in a small light plastic bowl over salted hot water.
Tilt and tap bowl with the wooden spoon releasing a controlled thin veil of cornmeal grains into salted water. After a couple of stirs, repeat, tapping and stirring again and again. Replenish cornmeal in bowl and continue until all cornmeal is stirred in.
Continuously stir until thick and polenta pulls away from pot. Add more water if needed.
This method is less tedious and cornmeal cooks quicker.
- 6 cups water
- 1 tablespoon Kosher salt
- 2 cups course stoneground cornmeal
- Prepared polenta made with 2 cups of cornmeal.
- ¼ pound unsalted butter melted
- 6 tablespoons quality grated parmigiana cheese
- Reserved hot water if needed
- follow recipe above, but reduce butter to 4 tablespoons
- 1 1/2-pounds large or extra-large wild-caught shrimp
- 1 quarter pound of butter, one stick
- 1/2 cup olive oil
- 1 tablespoon lemon juice
- 1/4 cup finely chopped scallions
- 1 tablespoon finely chopped garlic Few grinds each of salt and pepper
- garnish with chopped Italian flat leaf parsley, serve with Lemon quarters