Italy: Polenta – The Italian Way
Polenta is a simple, even modest dish, yet it occupies an important place in the cuisine of Venice and the Veneto region. It can be eaten hot or cold, broiled, grilled or cooked in the oven, served as a first course or accompanied by eggs, fish, meat, cheese or any of the above in stew form. It works much like rice does for some ethnic foods, as a medium for other sauces. Wikepedia has a great article on its history if you want to read more!
Ideally, it should be prepared in a deep copper pot with a rounded cauldron base and no coating of zinc. But any pot with a rounded and thick bottom will do.
The following is the traditional Italian method of preparing polenta:
4 cups of polenta (you can find this at stores in the bulk aisle – it is usually called polenta or maybe corn grits!) If you get coarse polenta, it will take longer; finely ground polenta will take half the time or less.
2 1/2 teaspoons salt
3 quarts boiling water (or more, as needed)
Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil with the salt in a large pot (make sure this pot has room, because your polenta will “grow” quite a bit!). Bring another quart of water to boil in a saucepan. As soon as the water boils, reduce the heat and gradually add 2 ½ cups of polenta while you are stirring. Keep stirring constantly with a wooden spoon. Traditionally, the stirring is clockwise only – the important part about this tradition is not the direction, it’s that you don’t change direction. As the polenta thickens, add a little more boiling water. After 15 minutes, add the remaining polenta and continue stirring and cooking, adding boiling water when it becomes too thick. It should cook for about 40-50 minutes: it will be more digestible that way. However, it is cooked when it comes easily away from the sides of the pan.
You can eat it soft, accompanied by your favorite vegetable or meat sauce or by some savory melted cheese and parmesan cheese. It may also be allowed to cool and harden, cut in various shapes, arranged in layers and baked or grilled.
A variation that my family used a lot and that we called “polenta pasticciata” was to thoroughly mix soft polenta with meat sauce and béchamel sauce and sprinkle parmesan cheese on top. It was very tasty and… filling!