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 - the Italian way

Polenta - How to Cook an Italian Staple

In the culinary tradition of la cucina povera, polenta plays an important part so what's the deal with it?

Polenta and Baccala on a white plate

Alla fine, it's a simple mix of maize, water and salt - a staple in most Italians' larder and incredibly versatile! North Italian people are nick-named ‘polentoni’ by those south of Rome because in the northern regions of Veneto, Piemonte, Lombardy and anywhere in the Alps, polenta is a firm favourite in kitchens on and restaurant menus. You can boil bake, fry and grill polenta, infatti, it never goes to waste because proper polenta takes a good hour to make so when you make a pot, you make a big pot and keep the leftovers for polenta slices at a later date.

Think of polenta as potato or pasta - it’s the staple starch of the north-eastern region of Veneto where you’ll see fields of polenta maize on the plains of the prosecco hills. I’ve never really got the point of this starchy staple but everyone here adores the stuff so on all Venice menus you’ll find soft polenta as a classically Venetian starter with schie (tiny sauteed shrimp), funghi, grilled radicchio di Treviso or gorgonzola or toasted as a regional cicheto with baccalà (creamy stock fish) at one of the cities traditional bacari as a condiment to most main dishes.

Polenta boxes with different ingredients on a shelf

Soft or hard polenta? Traditional or instant?

Polenta is defined by how coarse it is. Surprisingly there are a few different types including the grainy, rustica one which is my favourite. Traditional polenta has more flavour and is almost nutty, but to cook it takes an hour. There’s a trick to knowing when it’s ready which we’ll share with you keen readers.

Soft polenta is cooked with slightly more liquid and served hot as a base for cheeses, meat sauces or seafood, it has a wonderfully creamy texture which blends with soft and flavourful toppings.

Hard polenta uses the same flour but is served denser or left to cool and set in rectangular containers for later use as slices placed on the grill or baked in the oven.

Both instant and traditional polenta are stored near the many other flours generally available in Italy such as spelt, buckwheat and kamut or in the pasta aisle where you can also find it precooked in a block.

Instant polenta takes only a few minutes to reach a creamy consistency but many say it is nowhere near as delicious the traditional one which is smoother when cooked, however, if you're planning to eat it sliced, then instant works just as well.

Traditional polenta takes much longer to prepare but comes in a range of interesting varieties. In fruit and vegetable shops, look out for variants using whole and ancient grains like saraceno (buckwheat) which bring a richer, more complex flavour and white polenta which is popular as one of Veneto’s regional delicacies.

Meat stew on white polenta on a white plate

How to cook polenta

Instant polenta is poured slowly into a pot of salted, boiling water according to the packet instructions and whisked or stirred briskly until it begins to thicken. It can be left to boil on a low simmer for a few minutes and stirred every now and then until ready to serve. You can add more liquid to make soft polenta or serve it thicker for hard polenta or even let it set in a container which keeps for days, covered in the fridge. Slice it into blocks to easily warm in a pan, oven or on the barbeque or grill.

Traditional Polenta takes about an hour to cook properly. Traditionally, a large, copper pot called the paiolo Is used with a wooden stick to stir almost continuously.

The traditional recipe calls for 300g of polenta flour per litre of water with a tablespoon of olive oil poured into the water. Stock or milk can be used to substitute half of the liquid, adding flavour and creaminess respectively. 

Blocks of pre-cooked, yellow polenta.

Two Italian tricks to cook polenta:

  1. The flour must be poured ‘a pioggia’ into the pot. ‘A pioggia’ means ‘like rain’ - slowly and consistently. While you're pouring 'a pioggia', you're also beating furiously with a whisk or wooden spoon so no lumps can form

  2. The trick to knowing when polenta is ready is to keep an eye on the inside of the pot. When the central part comes away from the edges and a crust forms, it is ready!

Pour your polenta onto a board (or plate) and serve it hot! In one of the Veneto Dolomite's most popular mountain osterie - l'Insonnia, freshly-made polenta is the star of the show - walked between the tables, carried high in the air on a large, wooden board, and scooped off to be plonked theatrically onto your plate as you ask for it.

Yellow polenta slices with grilled cheese and greens on a white plate with a carafe and glass of red wine in Italy.

Polenta easily lends itself to different regional dishes where each place puts their take on how to serve it. 

Let’s start in Veneto, where we live, where polenta con i funghi (with foraged mushrooms) and Polenta e Osei (with tiny baked birds) are protagonists. Polenta is also a welcome side to spiedo - a traditional Veneto method of slow-roasting meat on a spit.

Head west from Venice to Milan into the region of Lombardy, in particular Lake Como, where Polenta Toc is a prized Bellagio special. See What to Order in Como.

Head north towards the Alps in Sud Tyrol where polenta is found as a hearty staple on absolutely every menu. Here, it’s especially popular served as an accompaniment to formaggio cotto - slices of Dobbiaco cheese warmed until the middle is melted - perfetto with creamy, rustic polenta.

In Valtellina, Lombardy (home to Bresaola), Polenta Taragna gets its name from the wooden tarél used to prepare their special blend of flours made up of 2 parts buckwheat to 1 part maize (one kilo flour to 4 litres of water). Melt 400g of butter and 600g of local casera cheese into the cooked polenta, serve nice and warm for a proper mountain foodie treat.

In Emilia Romagna, Polenta di Tossignano Is enjoyed with a thick pork meat ragù flavoured with rosemary. If you're ever nearby in February, visit the Polenta di Tossignano sagra around the 21st of the month for a full-immersion in polenta culture, bound to be unforgettable!

Buona polenta amici!

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