Polenta is one of my favorite traditional Italian staples.
It is an age old comfort food.
I remember the first time I saw our table set for polenta in Bologna. My grandmother would make a big fuss! She put lots of work and effort in preparing different sauces like Bolognese ragout (sauce), marinara sauce, roasted quail and vegetables to enjoy with it. Our wooden kitchen table became the platter for the polenta. It looked so impressive as it reminded me of a medieval king’s table.
According to Wikipedia, polenta is classified as a “peasant” food made from ground yellow or white cornmeal (maize) a/k/a mush, gruel or porridge. It dates back to Roman times originally made with farro, chestnut flour, millet, spelt, or chickpeas.
With the arrival of maize in Italy from the “New World” at the end of the 15th century polenta, as it is now known, took on its current recipe. Originating in the Friuli section of Italy, it was cooked in large copper pots called “paiolo.”
Polenta is a slow cooked dish taking over an hour to make and must be constantly stirred. Today we have alternatives to reduce the cooking and stirring time thanks to instant brands and in a tube ready to eat. Cooked polenta can be shaped into balls, patties or sticks and fried, baked, or grilled.
Polenta is delicious served with cheeses (gorgonzola), butter, tomato sauce, and brown gravies. It is also wonderful with roasted quail and other fowl, mushrooms (porcini), sausages, vegetables (rapini), and roasted meats.
In some parts of the world people serve it for breakfast. Austria serves their sweet polenta in a bowl and pours cafe au lait on top! In North America, we call it grits and top it off with everything from maple syrup to cheese- it’s all good!
During the 1980’s and 90’s polenta became a gourmet food and is now a staple in many American diets. It appears on menus of famous restaurants, ironically, utilizing some of the original Roman grains.