Polenta

Polenta

[poh-len-tuh]
Polenta is a dish made from boiled cornmeal. Although the word is borrowed into English from Italian, the dish (under various names) is popular in Italian, Savoyard, Swiss, Austrian, Bosnian, Croatian (where it is called žganci or, in Dalmatia, pura), Cuban, American, Hungarian (where it is called puliszka), Slovenian (locally known as žganci), Serbian (kačamak in Serbian), Romanian (where it is called mămăligă), Bulgarian, Georgian, Corsican, Argentine, Uruguayan, Brazilian, Peruvian, Venezuelan, Haitian, Mexican and Turkish (typically from the Black Sea region, known as mamalika) cuisines, and it is a traditional staple food throughout much of Northern Italy.

Description

Polenta is made with ground yellow or white cornmeal, (ground maize). It can be ground coarsely or finely depending on the region and the texture desired. As it is known today, polenta derives from earlier forms of grain mush (known as puls or pulmentum in Latin or more commonly as gruel or porridge) commonly eaten in Roman times and after. Early forms of polenta were made with such starches as the grain farro and chestnut flour, both of which are still used in small quantity today. When boiled, polenta has a smooth creamy texture due to the gelatinization of starch in the grain, though it may not be completely homogenous if a coarse grind or a particularly hard grain such as flint corn is used.

Preparation

Polenta was originally a peasant food. However, since the late 20th century, polenta has become a premium product. Polenta dishes are on the menu in many high-end restaurants, and prepared polenta can be found in supermarkets at high prices. Many current polenta recipes have given new life to an essentially bland and common food, invigorating it with various cheeses or tomato sauces.

Polenta is often cooked in a huge copper pot known in Italian as paiolo. In northern Italy there are many different ways to cook polenta. The most famous Lombard polenta dishes are polenta uncia, polenta concia, polenta e gorgonzola, and missultin e polenta; all are cooked with various cheeses and butter, except the last one, which is cooked with fish from Lake Como. It can also be cooked with porcini mushrooms, rapini, or other vegetables or meats, such as small song-birds in the case of the famous Venetian and Lombard dish polenta e osei. Western polenta is denser, while the eastern one is softer. The variety of cereal used is usually yellow maize, but buckwheat, white maize or mixtures thereof are also used.

Polenta is traditionally a slowly cooked dish. It sometimes takes an hour or longer, and constant stirring is necessary. The time and labor intensity of traditional preparation methods has led to a profusion of shortcuts. These include alternative cooking techniques that are meant to speed up the process. There are also new products such as instant polenta, popular in Italy, that allow for fast, easy preparation at home.

In his book Heat, Bill Buford talks about his experiences as a line cook in Mario Batali's Italian restaurant Babbo. Buford details the differences in taste between instant polenta and slowly cooked polenta, and describes a method of preparation that takes up to three hours, but does not require constant stirring: "polenta, for most of its cooking, is left unattended.... If you don't have to stir it all the time, you can cook it for hours—what does it matter, as long as you're nearby? Cook's Illustrated magazine has described a method using a microwave oven that reduces cooking time to 12 minutes and requires only a single stirring to prepare 3 1/2 cups of cooked polenta. Kyle Phillipssuggests making it in a polenta maker or in a slow cooker.

Cooked polenta can also be shaped into balls, patties, or sticks and fried in oil until it is golden brown and crispy; this variety of polenta is called crostini di polenta or polenta fritta. Similarly, once formed into a shape it can also be grilled using, for example, a brustolina grill.

Regional variations

  • In Bosnia, it is called pura.
  • In Croatia, polenta is common on the Adriatic coast, where it is known as palenta or pura; in Slovenia and the northwestern part of Croatia, in and around Zagreb, it is known as žganci. In the Adriatic Croatian coast, polenta goes together with fish or frog stew (brujet, brudet).
  • The Corsican variety is called pulenta, and it is made with sweet chestnut flour rather than cornmeal.
  • In Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia the dish is called kachamak (качамак).
  • The Serbian variety is called palenta or kačamak (качамак).
  • The Romanian variety is called mămăligă; this word is also borrowed into the Russian (Мамалыга). The most notable feature of this Romanian variety is the feta cheese cooked in the Polenta.
  • In southern Austria Polenta is also eaten for breakfast (sweet Polenta); the Polenta pieces are either dipped in café au lait or served in a bowl with the café au lait poured on top of it (this is a favourite of children).

Similarity with other foods

Similarity with North and South American foods

Polenta is very similar to corn grits, a common dish in the cuisine of the Southern United States, with the difference that grits are usually made from coarsely ground kernels. When properly cooked, grits and polenta have similarly smooth textures, "grit" referring to the texture of the dried corn before cooking. Another variation uses ground hominy, lye-treated corn kernels.

Polenta is similar to boiled maize dishes of Mexico, where both maize and hominy originate.

The Brazilian variety is also known as angu. Originally made by native Indians, it is a kind of polenta without salt nor any kind of oil. However, nowadays "Italian" polenta is much more common at Brazilian tables, especially in the southern and southeastern regions (which have high numbers of Italian immigrants), although some people still call it "angu". The city of São Bernardo do Campo is famous for its restaurants specialized in frango com polenta (fried chicken with fried polenta).

Similarity with African and Afro-Caribbean foods

In South Africa, cornmeal mush is a staple food called mealie pap; elsewhere in Southern Africa it is called sadza, in Zimbabwe, phaletshe, in Botswana, and nshima, in Zambia, and "Oshifima" or Pap in Namibia. In East Africa a similar dish is called ugali, named from the Swahili language. Fufu, a starch-based food from West and Central Africa, may also be made from maize meal. In the Caribbean, similar dishes are cou-cou (Barbados), funchi (Curaçao) and funjie (Virgin Islands). It is known as funche in Puerto Rican cuisine and mayi moulin in Haitian cuisine.

Bibliography

Giorgio V. Brandolini 2007. Storia e gastronomia della polenta nella Bergamasca. Orizzonte Terra. Bergamo. 32 pages.

Interesting facts

  • The overreliance on polenta as a staple food caused outbreaks of pellagra throughout much of Europe until the 20th century and in the American South during the early 1900s. Maize lacks readily accessible niacin unless cooked with alkali.
  • "Polentone" ("pulentun" or "pulintù" in dialect) meaning "polenta eater" (literally "big polenta") is a derogatory term sometimes used by Southern Italians to refer to Northern Italians.

See also

Notes

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