When it comes to side dishes, potatoes, rice, pasta and a host of other legumes and grains are typically in line long before polenta makes it to the table.
Even in Italian restaurants, this staple of Northern Italian cooking is rarely guaranteed a place on the menu.
But itís worth discovering polenta for the warm, creamy comfort it provides. Itís one of the best foods you may not be eating.
Like Southern grits or Amish mush, polenta is cooked cornmeal. But unlike those other two dishes, polenta is typically laced with butter and Parmesan cheese, which give it a lush savoriness.
As a creamy porridge, it takes the place of mashed potatoes, and pairs with savory toppings or meat dishes with a sauce, like osso bucco.
In its classic presentation, polenta is served creamy, with meat sauce or vegetables. Traditionally, the porridge would be spooned over a wooden board, topped with meat such as crumbled sausage or classic beef ragu, and eaten communally from the center of the table.
Creamy polenta can be layered into lasagna instead of noodles, or served in individual bowls.
When firm, polenta can be cut into wedges or squares and baked or pan fried to create a foundation for meat, vegetables or sauces, with a crisp outside and soft interior.
Cut into sticks and deep fried, firm polenta is an alternative to french fries, with crispy outsides and creamy centers. Small squares of baked polenta can replace crackers or crostini in appetizers, and also are gluten-free.
Polenta is made like any hot cereal, by whisking it into boiling water, and then reducing the heat to cook it until it the water is absorbed and it forms a soft porridge, the consistency of firm oatmeal.
Italian chef and cookbook author Lidia Matticchio Bastianich suggests boiling it with fresh bay leaves to impart additional flavor to the porridge.
Here are two easy recipes, one served creamy, the other firm, to help you discover why you should be eating polenta.
POLENTA WITH SAUSAGE SAUCE
For the sauce:
1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
1 tbsp. olive oil
2 lbs. Italian (hot or mild) sausage, bulk or removed from its casing
1 small yellow onion, minced
1 celery stalk, minced
Ĺ leek, thinly sliced
1 carrot, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. tomato paste
Ĺ cup water
For the polenta:
2 quarts water
Salt, to taste
2 cups cornmeal
Ĺ cup (1 stick) unsalted butter
Ĺ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
ľ cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
Place the porcini mushrooms in a bowl and pour boiling water over them. Let them soak for 20 minutes, then drain and coarsely chop.
In a saucepan, heat the oil, then add the sausage. Once the fat of the sausage starts rendering, after about 3 minutes, add the onion, celery, leek, carrot and the porcini, making sure you break the sausage up as it starts cooking. Cook for 10 minutes longer, then mix the tomato paste with the water and add to the saucepan.
Stir well, cover, and cook very slowly for 30 to 40 minutes. If necessary, add a little bit of water during cooking to make sure the sauce doesnít stick to the bottom of the pan.
To make the polenta, bring the water to a simmer. Add salt and slowly add the cornmeal, making sure you whisk continuously. Simmer gently for about 45 minutes or until the polenta is done, stirring frequently to make sure the polenta does not stick. (See note.)
Remove the polenta from the heat, adjust seasoning, and add the butter and cheese (optional), mixing vigorously until combined.
Add the parsley to the sausage mixture. Serve the polenta and sausage together.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
Editorís note: Depending on the variety of polenta used (fine, medium or coarse grind) polenta may be done well before 45 minutes. Typically, look for a medium grind.
ó Adapted from At Home with the Culinary Institute of America: Italian Cooking,
Gianni Scappin, Alberto Vanoli and Steven Kolpan
4 cups cold water
1 cup cornmeal (polenta)
Salt, to taste
Pizza toppings such as tomato or pesto sauce, fresh basil, chopped fresh tomatoes, sauteed peppers, crumbled cooked sausage, grated mozzarella or Parmesan cheese
Bring water to a boil and add salt. Add polenta in a slow steady stream, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Reduce heat to low, cover and simmer for approximately 15 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent lumps and sticking.
Remove from heat. Spread polenta into the bottom of a 9-inch-by-13-inch pan, either a rimmed sheet pan or a traditional cake pan, that has been sprayed with nonstick cooking spray. Smooth top.
Cool on countertop to room temperature. Cover polenta top with a sheet of plastic wrap and place in refrigerator to cool completely.
When ready to assemble pizzettes, use a 3-inch round cookie cutter or a water glass to cut polenta into about 12-15 rounds. Alternately, use a knife to cut polenta into squares. Place polenta on a baking sheet, brush lightly with olive oil and place in an oven that has been preheated to 400 degrees.
When polenta begins to crisp and brown on the edges (about 15 minutes), remove from oven and top with pizza toppings of your choice.
Return to oven for 5 to 10 minutes until toppings are hot and bubbly.
Makes 12 to 15 appetizer portions.
ó Lisa Abraham
Lisa Abraham can be reached at 330-996-3737 or at firstname.lastname@example.org.