Pasta and pizza always seem to be the cornerstones of what makes Italian food “Italian”. However, there is a staple food of Northern Italy that makes up the third aspect of the Italian food trinity: humble, yet versatile and satisfying polenta. A key to its popularity is its sheer versatility. It can be served with nearly anything. Soft polenta is often a replacement for bread or in lieu of a pasta course, served with butter and cheese and often shaved truffles. It is also served as a side dish to regional meat dishes such as Osso Bucco, braised short ribs or fish. Polenta can be served in a cake form – crispy on the outside, creamy within, or it can be grilled and served with Bruschetta-like toppings like mushrooms and tomatoes.
I make polenta two ways: creamy and crisp. This recipe will highlight both. For creamy polenta, I finish it almost like whipped potatoes – once it’s cooked, I whip butter and cream into it. It should be served shortly after preparing it. If your family or guests are not interested joining you in the kitchen as you finish the creamy polenta, my favorite approach is to serve it crisp as it can be done hours ahead and sautéed just before serving. I simply spread the creamy polenta in a baking sheet and chill until it sets up, then cut it into shapes, (use your imagination!), and sauté until golden brown.
My strong preference is to use extra-fine polenta by Moretti. Use whatever you like, but avoid quick-cooking polenta. Combine 6 C chicken or vegetable stock, 2 Tb minced fresh garlic and a sprinkling of kosher salt in a large saucepan and bring to a boil. Pour in 1 lb, (500 grams; 2¾ C) extra-fine polenta in a stream and cook over low heat, stirring often, for about 18 - 20 minutes, until the polenta is quite dry and coats the bottom of the pan. The moisture must evaporate, because it will be replaced with fat; otherwise the texture could be gummy. The best polenta has fat to varying degrees. If watching your fat intake, eat a smaller portion but don’t skimp on the amount as it makes the dish.
Gently warm 2½ C heavy cream in another pan. Increase the heat under your polenta to medium and stir in 12 Tb (1½ sticks – 6 ounces) unsalted butter, and cut into ½ inch pieces. Stir the polenta thoroughly. Add the warmed cream about ½ C at a time, letting the polenta absorb it each time before adding more. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
|Adding the butter|
For creamy polenta, pour into a bowl and top with a drizzle of finishing olive oil. Serve immediately. To be truly authentic, you should pour onto a long wood plank on your table.
For crisp polenta – featured in these pictures – pour into a baking dish that has been rinsed briefly in water and left damp. It should result in the polenta being at least 1 inch thick. Cover with a plastic wrap pressed directly against the polenta. Refrigerate for several hours until the polenta has set. Cut the polenta into rectangles or other shapes. Use your favorite cookie cutters that will result in a deep enough cut. Heat some canola oil in a nonstick frying pan over medium heat. Add the polenta and cook, turning once, until a rich golden brown and crispy on both sides and hot throughout, about 12 minutes. Sprinkle optional chopped chives on top and serve.
|Polenta in the pan|
Both versions of polenta can take similar garnishes, such as a rich tomato sauce, fried oregano sprigs or sage leaves, parmesan cheese, mushrooms, shaved truffles, chopped cooked pancetta or many others. Let your imagination run wild here. Everything goes with polenta – hence its versatility.