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The Guardian - AU
The Guardian - AU
Natascha Mirosch

Comfort meal: six ways with polenta, from creamy ragu to gluten-free quiche

Anna Jones’ creamy polenta with grilled mushrooms and radicchio
Anna Jones’ creamy polenta with grilled mushrooms and radicchio. Photograph: Issy Croker/The Guardian

Polenta is one of the food world’s most successful social climbers. Once a staple in the diet of Italian peasants, today it is found in top-shelf pantries and first-class restaurants.

Most commonly made from cornmeal, polenta, known as puls by the ancient Romans, was originally made from any kind of hulled and crushed grain.

In De re culinaria (The Art of Cooking), a cookbook dating from the 5th century AD, the author, Apicius, gives a recipe made from spelt cooked with brains and ground meat, “moistened with broth and wine” and seasoned with pepper, lovage and fennel seed.

It wasn’t until the Columbian exchange that maize, brought to Italy from the Americas, superseded most other grains.

Polenta is still most regularly eaten in the north of Italy, but almost every region has a version – whether served with fontina cheese in the Valle D’Aosta or pork loin in Lazio.

At about $3 for 500 grams in supermarkets, we could do a lot worse than emulating the original polentoni (“polenta eaters”) – the frugal Italian peasantry – by incorporating more of this shape-shifting ingredient into our home cooking.

Simmered slowly

If you have patience and time, then traditional, rather than instant polenta is the way to go, according to Pasquale Trimboli of Canberra’s Italian and Sons and Mezzalira Ristorante. “It has a better texture and creaminess,” he says.

Trimboli advises whisking to avoid any lumps when pouring polenta into boiling water. “Cook for 45 minutes at a very low temperature, stirring every few minutes so it doesn’t catch at the bottom of the pan. Add water or stock little by little if it needs more.”

To dial up the flavour, Trimboli suggests adding a knob of butter and some parmesan rinds while cooking – just remember to remove the rinds before you serve it.

Felicity Cloake’s polenta cooked with milk
Felicity Cloake’s polenta cooked with milk. Photograph: The Guardian

Felicity Cloake cooks her polenta with milk and advises running the grain through your fingers as you’re adding it, to get rid of any lumps.

The cookbook author Paola Bacchia says that in her family, polenta was cooked only with water and salt.

Rachel Roddy, too, uses just salted water, using a whisk initially to deal with any lumps, then swapping to a wooden spoon, and cooking until it “pulls away from the side of the pan”.

Soft and creamy

Whether you choose to use water or stock, or add butter and cheese, to keep your polenta creamy and pliable it needs to be served immediately – steaming hot from the pan.

“Polenta is the perfect accompaniment to a flavourful, hearty ragu, grilled meats or sausages,” says the Florence-based food writer Emiko Davies. “I also love it with a stew of vongole [or pipis], with tomatoes and chilli.”

Nigel Slater’s quick-cooked polenta with mushrooms and broccoli
Nigel Slater’s quick-cooked polenta with mushrooms and broccoli. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

Yotam Ottolenghi adds fresh corn to his, cooking the kernels with the polenta and topping it with a rich sausage ragu.

Trimboli, a traditionalist, likes to eat his with salt and grated parmesan or with a ragu of veal, oxtail or osso buco.

Nigel Slater uses the quick-cooked polenta variety for his midweek polenta dish, topped with mushrooms and broccoli, believing the finer texture results in a “soft, creamy” dish.

Anna Jones also serves mushrooms with her creamy polenta, marinating them in red wine vinegar (about $5 at major supermarkets) and cooking them on a griddle pan with radicchio (about $4 a head in major supermarkets) until slightly charred.

Sliced and grilled

Polenta being grilled over hot coals
While polenta can be cooked over coals, a griddle pan will also achieve dark lines. Photograph: IslandLeigh/Getty Images/iStockphoto

For a firmer polenta for grilling, pour the cooked polenta into a greased or lined pan and put in the fridge once cooled.

“Slice it fairly thinly and grill in a griddle pan so that you can see darker griddle lines on it,” Bacchia says. “We serve it with a young cow’s milk cheese – latteria – or montasio or piave cheese, but you could use a mild cheddar.”

In Tuscany, Davies says, a meaty ragu is favoured – often made from wild boar. But she also likes to top polenta with garlicky, herby sautéed mushrooms.

Fried and crispy

Nigel Slater’s deep-fried polenta with taleggio
Nigel Slater’s deep-fried polenta with taleggio. Photograph: Jonathan Lovekin/The Observer

“My family goes crazy for fried polenta, topped with ragu for some delicious crostini,” Davies says.

Once set, she slices the polenta into rectangles, then shallow-fries them before topping. Or, she says, deep-fry for “ultra crisp edges”.

Slater recommends “tearing” rather than cutting the set polenta into small pieces for added texture. He deep-fries them for five to six minutes, until crunchy, then serves with creme fraiche (about $4 for 100ml at major supermarkets) heated and mixed with taleggio. Any soft cheese, such as a brie, will do.

Bacchia often cuts her polenta into batons to make “scagliozzi” – moreish polenta chips she serves with a garlic mayonnaise, while Cloake dusts her polenta chips in more polenta before shallow-frying them for extra crispness.

In a cake

You can also use uncooked polenta like flour in bread or cakes, according to Davies: “My favourite lemon polenta cake is made with half almond meal, half polenta. Use 90 grams of each plus a teaspoon of baking powder and a pinch of salt. Combine these in a bowl.

“In a separate bowl, beat three eggs and about half a cup of olive oil until creamy. Add the zest and juice of two lemons then fold in the polenta mixture.

“Pour into a small loaf tin or a 20cm cake tin and bake at 180C until the top is golden and springy to the touch, about 30 minutes.”

Polenta cake
Polenta cake doesn’t rise like a regular cake but it is dense and satisfying. Photograph: Sergio Amiti/Getty Images

Bacchia also makes a polenta cake with dried fruit, nuts and fennel seeds. “It doesn’t rise like a regular cake but is dense, satisfying and delicious,” she says.

As a base

Polenta can also be used for savoury baking – a useful gluten-free substitute.

“Make the polenta, then tip it into a pie tin,” says Davies. “When it’s cool enough to handle, use your fingers to push the polenta into the pie crust in an even layer, sides too, then let it cool and set completely. You can even do this the day before.

“Make your filling, pour into the polenta crust and bake as you would a regular quiche. It goes particularly well with a cheesy quiche, perhaps filled with some sautéed greens or mushrooms.”

Slater uses polenta for a pizza base, with toppings of mozzarella and dolcelatte cheese (Australians can substitute with something like a more affordable Castello Blue at about $5.50 for 100g in supermarkets), baking it until the cheese bubbles.

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