I shake my head when I see Italian polenta on a menu or magazine article presented as some exotic gourmet dish. Where I came from (that would be the wilds of central Pennsylvania) cornmeal boiled in water is cornmeal mush. Has been for a long time. American writer Joel Barlow wrote a mock-epic poem about this humble daily staple. As a New Englander, he knew the porridge as hasty pudding.
Thee the soft nations round the warm Levant
Palanta call, the French of course Polante;
E’en in thy native regions how I blush
To hear the Pennsylvanians call thee Mush!
On Hudson’s banks, while men of Belgic spawn
Insult and eat thee by the name suppawn.
All spurious appellations; void of truth:
I’ve better known thee from my earliest youth,
Thy name is Hasty-Pudding!
The Hasty-Pudding, Joel Barlow, 1793
Italy didn’t have corn, of course, until Columbus brought it back from the Americas. While the habit of eating fresh corn never really caught on among Italians, cooking the ground dried kernels did. Generations of Italian peasants survived on polenta. I once interviewed an American woman whose father had grown up in the Veneto. His family ate polenta three times a day. On good days, a few pieces of salami or cheese might accompany the porridge.
Polenta is filling, comforting, and versatile. A soft polenta like the recipe that follows is tasty when accompanied with a pasta sauce. (In fact, polenta is a fine option for those with gluten intolerance.) This sauce is called arrabiata or “angry” sauce because of the tiny amount of hot red pepper. For a simple supper, pair this dish with a salad.
1 cup cornmeal (preferably stone-ground)
2 to 2 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth
1/2 cup (2 ounces) shredded provolone cheese
1/4 teaspoon salt
Arrabiata Sauce (recipe follows)
1/4 cup (1 ounce) grated Parmesan cheese
In a saucepan, whisk together the cornmeal and 2 cups broth. Cook, whisking constantly, over medium-high heat, for about 3 minutes, or until boiling. Reduce the heat to low. Cook, whisking frequently, for about 3 minutes, or until thick. Remove from the heat. Stir in the remaining broth for a looser polenta. Stir in the cheese and salt.
Serve in pasta bowls topped with Arrabiata sauce and Parmesan.
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 ounces pancetta or prosciutto, cut into slivers
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 can (14 1/2 ounces) diced or crushed tomatoes, with juice
3/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
1/8 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons minced parsley
In a medium skillet, warm the oil and pancetta or prosciutto over medium-low heat. Cook, stirring occasionally, for about 8 minutes or until any fat is melted. Add the garlic. Cook for about 30 seconds or until fragrant. Add the tomatoes, red pepper, and salt.
Increase the heat to medium. Cover and cook for about 5 minutes, or until softened. Crush some of the tomato chunks with the back of a spoon. Stir in the parsley.
Lee Davis says
Being born in Glenfield, Pa. on the second highest hill known as “fresh air hill” where my mother and father had their farm and my mother did all of her baking in an outdoor oven, I grew up on “cornmeal mush” which we ate in a bowl with sugar and milk and the cooled leftovers were formed into a roll and saved for the following days breakfast by slicing, frying in butter and then eaten with maple syrup poured over. Being born of first and second generation “southern” Italian” heritage I never had polenta any other way until as an adult I formed close friendships with several second generation “northern” Italian friends who taught me the joy and enjoyment of polenta “and” risotto. My friend Bruno was the polenta and risotto “king extrodinaire” and a “salad maker” beyond compare. Polenta was their starch and it was enjoyed under veal stew and any other kind of sauce, or alongside the meat instead of potatoes or rice. And I in exchange lavished them with my “southern” Italian dishes.
I especially love polenta with Italian sausage, green peppers and mushrooms cooked in a tomato sauce. um mmm. Also good with chicken cacciatore.
The traditional way of serving polenta (and I did this once for a crowd) is to pour it out onto a wooden board into a “round”, let it set up and then cut it with a string.
Thank you for sharing this wonderful memory of cornmeal mush/polenta.
Whatever it’s called, it nourished many people.
Debra Walter says
My dad was in an enormous argument with his parents over polenta when he was growing up. He refused to eat it and his dad accused him of being spoiled because it’s a “poor man’s” dish. My dad argued that with all the cheese and meat and butter they added to make it palatable, it was a very expensive dish. Oh, the yelling. The bottom line was they knew to never serve polenta when my dad was around.
What a great memory. I think your dad was right.
Lisa DeNunzio says
As an Italian American we love to have polenta when the weather turns cold, which isn’t that often in South Florida. Allora. The polenta is prepared with mushrooms and sausage in a tomato sauce. It is served on a large wooden board communal style. Che buono.
Judy@Savoring Today says
I love your take on this! I grew up in Missouri, we also called it mush, which I never liked. I have yet to try it as an adult, even when food magazines tried to promote it as exotic. Your dish looks wonderful, especially the sauce, I may have to try it just to see if “mush” can somehow be transformed into, well, something more than mush. 🙂
The truth is, I was never crazy about mush either. But with the savory Italian accompaniments, I like it very much. Let me know if you try it.