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.