Polenta is on of the most interesting and delicious ingredients you’ve probably never tried. It’s an incredibly simple ingredient that can be used in numerous ways. Polenta is ground corn meal that is cooking into a paste.
Polenta is a latin word, meaning hulled which refers to the process of of crushing grain. In europe corn was not grown until the 16th century, before that dating back to roman times polenta was made from crushed ferro, millet, chick peas or spelt. It was a slave food more commonly known and gruel or porridge.
When europeans began to produce polenta with corn, they found that the starch in corn made the texture of the usually unappetizing dish, velvety smooth, and the slightly sweet neutral flavour of corn was a perfect canvas for the infusion of flavour. Different ingredients started being used with the usually plain staple food. Cheeses, butter and lard were used to add fat content and really kick the flavour in the dish up a notch.
Up until recently polenta was categorized as peasant food, usually served as a thick mash potato like consistency, flavoured with anchovy or other salted fish. It’s use has now expanded to becoming a rich flavourful staple of those who love rustic italian comfort food.
Polenta isn’t just a porridge like substance, much like grits. Once you make polenta you can leave it to set and it will congeal into a solid substance which can be used in many different applications. In Friuli, in northern Italy. Polenta is left to set and then cut into discs and then fried or baked. This creates almost like a corn meal chip or fritter, which adds a great crunch to a dish.
You can buy ready made polenta from your grocery store or italian specialty store in long tube that look like tube of cookie dough. There are already prepared polenta that you can either boil down into it’s creamy form or cut into different shapes and sizes for other cooking preparations. One of my favourites is to cut the polenta into cubes and toss with a butter, garlic, parmigiano reggiano. It’s a great gluten free alternative to pasta and is pre cooked so all you need to do it cut it up into the size you want and then just add it to any dish that normally calls for pasta.
What makes polenta so great is that your only limited to the chef’s imagination. It’s a blank canvas that can take so many great forms and flavours. The next time you are at the grocery store pick some up and see what you can create.