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Polenta: The Ultimate Comfort Food

Warm, embracing and dependably satiating, polenta is the number one winter favourite comfort food.

Whether prepared simply with butter and Parmigiano Reggiano, or alongside a rich meat sauce, a pot of steaming corn meal is a guarantee of a hearty and satisfying meal.

Not surprisingly, every region of Italy likes to serve their polenta differently, from soft and creamy, to firm enough to cut with a knife. It all depends on how it is cooked and with what it is being served.

Long before corn arrived in Europe in the 1500s, the people of the Italian peninsula had a well established tradition of eating other grains that were  ground and cooked like porridge. Farro (emmer wheat), chickpeas, chestnuts, millet and barley were all prepared in this way. The Romans called these dishes pulmentum from which we get the modern term polenta.

Despite its North American origins, corn was introduced in Italy from the Ottoman east, most likely via Venetian traders. This led to  confusion over the real origin of the grain and explains why in Italy to this day, Italians refer to it as il granturco, a contraction of grano Turco, or Turkish grain.

As Veneto was the first region to adopt corn, polenta remains a staple in the regional cooking where it is often served with seafood including fried sardines, fresh anchovies, a shellfish ragu, bacalá or moscardini (baby octopus).

By the late 1600s, corn meal was well and truly established around the Bergamo region of Lombardy, which continues to be a centre for polenta production to this day and is home to the Moretti mills. It was regarded as a cheap and efficient way to feed the poor and was a main staple for a large part of the population right up to the 20th Century.

You will often hear Northern Italians referred to as polentoni, (polenta eaters) as polenta is still as much part of the daily diet as bread - it is sliced and fried or topped with cheese and grilled and often takes the place of rice and pasta on the menu.

Perhaps the most common dish is polenta served with various types of spezzatino or ragù these are usually tomato-based meat stews made with veal, beef, wild boar or poultry. At large family gatherings the steaming polenta is poured onto a large wooden or marble platter, from which the diners quickly scoop up the polenta into their plates, pour over the meat sauce, and top with dollop of home-churned butter, or a generous sprinkling of Parmesan.

Polenta Pasticciata is a speciality in Lombardy where the polenta is finished in the oven layered with butter and cheese. The Milanese like to add porcini mushrooms or meat ragù whilst a Neapolitan version includes the mozzarella di bufala with a fresh tomato sauce.

Polenta is also present in the regional cuisine of most of the rest of Italy. In Sicily they make a magnificent corn bread, while in central Italy the polenta is cooked to a softer, more liquid consistency and served with tomato-based sauces of meat or sausage.

 
COOKING TRADITIONAL POLENTA

Preparing polenta is a ritual. Although the blackened polenta pot hanging simmering over the open fireplace has been replaced by the steel saucepan on the stove, the time and attention needed to cook polenta to an even, smooth consistency hasn’t changed.

The general ratio of polenta to water is 1:4, but for coarse or stone-ground polenta use 5 parts water for every one part of polenta. Use a heavy-based pot for better heat conduction; salt the water and gradually pour in the polenta, mixing constantly to avoid lumps forming. Cook polenta on a low flame and stir it frequently. You'll often hear people say it has to be stirred constantly. This isn't really true, however, if you leave it untouched for too long, it may stick to the base and burn, or form a skin on the surface. A good stir every few minutes should suffice.

For a richer flavour you can use stock instead of water, or even milk.

The cooking time varies from 30-40 minutes, but generally after 30-35 minutes the polenta will be fluffy and start to come away from the sides meaning it is ready. Adding more or less water will control consistency. The longer the polenta is cooked the thicker it will become but even runny polenta will set when cold. Once cooked, pour it on a wooden board, cover it with a linen or cotton cloth and let it take consistency for a few minutes.

The only modern shortcut offered is the polentina, a rounded copper pot copper with an electric rotating paddle that relieves the cook of the constant stirring. Alternatively, there is polenta lampo a quick-cooking polenta that cuts cooking time from 30 to just 8 minutes.

 

COOKING WITH A PRESSURE COOKER

Pour the water in the pan, bring it to the boil, add salt and gradually pour flour, mixing constantly to avoid lumps forming.
Once it’s well mixed, close the pressure cooker and cook it on a high flame.
When the hissing starts, turn the flame down low and cook it for 20 minutes.

 

COOKING WITH A MICROWAVE

Pour the water in a container and bring it to the boil for 12/15 minutes, at maximum power. Add salt and gradually pour flour, mixing constantly to avoid lumps forming.

Once it’s well mixed, cover the container and cook at 750 W for 5 minutes. Then turn the power down low to 500 W and cook for another 15 minutes.

 

 

TYPES OF POLENTA

Polenta Bramata 500g
Bramata yellow corn polenta is the traditional polenta of Bergamo, Lombardy, home of the Moretti mills. It is delicious served soft and warm with butter and grated parmesan. Alternatively, it may be allowed to cool and then be carved. It can also be used to make biscotti.  Buy Online
 
White Corn Polenta ‘Bramata Bianca’ 500g
The white variety became popular in the area around Padua, and is mostly used in the Veneto region. It has a fine texture and delicate flavour which is especially recommended with seafood. Buy Online
 
Corn & Buckwheat Polenta 'Taragna' 500g
Yellow corn meal mixed with coarse-ground buckwheat is popular in Italy’s Alpine regions like the Valtellina area of northern Lombardy. It is served with sausages, stewed meats or with melted cheese stirred through.
Buckwheat had arrived in northern Italy from Asia in the 1200s. Known to this day as Grano Saraceno (the Saracen grain), it too was dried, ground and made into gruel. Buy Online

Polenta 'Lampo' Quick Cooking 500g
Here the corn meal has been partially steamed so that the cooking time becomes significantly shorter, approximately 8 minutes. It has many of the same properties of polenta Bramata. Buy Online

Polenta ‘Taragna Lampo' Quick Cooking 500g
Yellow corn and Buckwheat polenta in a quick cooking format. Buy Online

Polenta Pronta – Ready Cooked 1kg
The fastest polenta of all. Just slice and warm or grill and serve. Buy Online

 

 

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