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IN THE KITCHEN : Polenta: A Stirring Tale

January 13, 1994|RUSS PARSONS | TIMES FOOD MANAGING EDITOR

There is something about polenta that brings out the traditionalist in a lot of us.

I once cooked dinner with a wonderful woman named Giuliana Giacosa-Pionzo at her bed-and-breakfast on a hill just above the Italian town of Alba, approximately midway between the wine regions of Barolo and Barbaresco. Signora Pionzo's B & B, which cost something like $45 per person, was luxuriously finished, befitting the wife of a prominent physician. For an extra charge (as I remember, more than the room itself), she would fix dinner for you, with most of the ingredients coming from her property.

In her kitchen, she had all the modern conveniences--electric range, dishwasher, freezer and refrigerator. And she had a wood-burning stove. She kept it, she said, because "I can't imagine making polenta on anything else."

Polenta is a deeply flavored, completely delicious sponge that is unmatched for sopping up juices from, say, stews or roast meats. In this sense, you could call it the Italian equivalent of mashed potatoes. But make it the old-fashioned way once, and you'll understand why those little Italian grandmas, under their black dresses, have shoulders like NFL linebackers.

Technically, making polenta is no challenge. And as far as ingredients are concerned, nothing could be simpler--there are only three: cornmeal, water and salt. It's the combining of them that is a pain. Imagine stirring tar for an hour continuously (no time off for good behavior) and you get a pretty fair picture of what I'm talking about. It's weary work and if you're not careful (or if you're just wimpy), you can wind up with a nice blister on your stirring hand. Mine is recovering nicely, thank you.

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In restaurants, it's a pretty sure bet that the only types of polenta you'll see are those fried or broiled polenta tiles. They're made from cooled and sliced fresh polenta and they look nice on a designer plate. They are also much more forgiving of quick preparation and can be made in advance and quickly finished at the last minute. I made fried polenta both from regular cornmeal and from instant polenta mix and I couldn't tell the difference.

Fresh polenta is another story. It's a funny thing, but when foods are this simple in concept, they frequently have what food writer Matt Kramer calls "taste transparency." Take a bite and you immediately can tell what has gone into the dish--and if any shortcuts were taken. Polenta is that way. Taste a sample freshly made from an instant mix and then one made from regular cornmeal. There's no convincing yourself they're the same thing, no matter how sore your stirring arm is. I know. I tried.

In fact, I went beyond that. Various cookbook writers have come up with shortcuts to try to take the sting out of the preparation. I took two that seemed promising and made them alongside the regular and instant. And if you don't think juggling four burners of polenta is fun . . .

First, the regular. Into 6 1/2 cups of boiling salted water, stir 2 cups of yellow cornmeal (some cookbooks insist on organically grown, stone-ground, but I used regular commercial, albeit from a store where cornmeal turns over very quickly and it was fine--I think freshness is the key factor). Use a whisk for this part of the job; it's most important that no lumps form. If they do, you can try to work them out by mashing them against the side of the pan with a wooden spoon, but this is, at best, an imperfect solution.

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Traditionally, we're told to add the cornmeal by the fistful, letting it trickle between almost closed fingers to prevent it from being added too quickly. I found this a pain. It worked better for me to shake it straight from a small bowl, being careful to add a little at a time, whisking madly all the while. It takes a little practice, but you'll work out a kind of push-pull rhythm--sort of like rubbing your belly and patting your head at the same time.

An article in a wonderful Italian food magazine, A Tavola, recommends adding three-fourths of the cornmeal first and then stirring for 15 minutes before adding the remainder. When you make it, you'll understand why. Three-fourths of the cornmeal is about what it takes to thicken the mush enough that it starts bubbling and spewing like some golden volcano. Watch it: Those spitting polenta gobs are hot. It's not called Italian napalm for nothing.

Once all the cornmeal has been added, turn the heat to medium-low and stir with a wooden spoon. And stir. And stir. For about an hour. The polenta is done when it pulls cleanly away from the sides and bottom of the pan. In "La Cucina di Lidia," noted Italian chef Lidia Bastianich recommends a cooking time of only 30 minutes to 35 minutes. I tasted it at that point, and neither the flavor nor the texture were quite right, though certainly each type of cornmeal will cook differently.

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