This post is in praise of polenta, a simple and versatile accompaniment for many moist braises. It is particularly popular in the north eastern regions of Northern Italy – Trentino-Alto Adige, Friuli Venezia Giulia and Veneto. However, this is not to say that some polenta is also appreciated in Piedmont, Valle d’Aosta, Tuscany and Lombardy.
The most common polenta is coarsely ground yellow corn and it is simply cooked in water and salt. Polenta taragna is a mixture of cornmeal and buckwheat, a popular grain in Italy’s Alpine region, especially in the Valtellina in Northern Lombardy. Because wheat is difficult to cultivate in the northern regions like Val d’ Aosta and Trentino-Alto Adige, buckwheat is grown and mixed with wheat flour to make pasta (called pizzoccheri) and in gnocchi . Buckwheat is called grano saraceno , this is because the Etruscans and Saracens introduced the buckwheat grain to Italy. I visited this region last year and particularly enjoyed this combination.
Once cooked, I prefer to spread the polenta in a pan suitable to go into an oven, I drizzle it generously with olive oil and bake it .
The polenta can then be cut into slices and served with a wet dish.
I prefer to bake the polenta, it allows it to form a delicious crust. I am not one for last minute preparations….there is enough to fuss about once friends arrive.
Polenta does not have to be baked, it can just be scraped onto a board and cut at the table prior to serving. In fact, this is how my aunt in Trieste always presented polenta after she cooked it in her heavy bottomed copper pot.
Here are a few dishes that can be enjoyed with polenta:
Polenta is perfect with braised mushrooms. First sautéed at a high temperature with onion and /or garlic and then finished at at a lower temperature (covered with a lid) with some flavoured liquid – I like to use stock and wine. Herbs are a must.
This is a saucepan of my beef Goulash.… a favourite dish served with polenta and as cooked in Trieste, once part of the Austrian- Hungarian Empire.
Polenta is excellent with baccalà. There are many regional recipes for baccalà , for example: alla Vincentina (from Vicenza), alla Triestina (from Trieste), alla Veneziana ( from Venice) and various other cities in Northern Italy.
The recipes are not too dissimilar and basically are “white” with no or little tomato (tomatoes in the cooking of Southern Italy).
Baccalà Mantecato is a creamy spread popular in the Veneto and around Trieste in Friuli Venezia Giulia. Baccalà Mantecato is often presented on crostini di polenta – cooked polenta cut into batons or croutons and then either baked or fried.
The baccalà is poached in milk, the flesh removed from the bones and whipped with extra virgin olive oil and garlic.
Polenta with sauerkraut, very popular in Trieste where I lived as a child. The photo below is of Ponte Rosso and the Canal Grande in Trieste. The statue is Nino Spagnoli’s James Joyce and placed on the bridge over the Canal Grande.
Sauerkraut can be cooked slowly as a side dish for meats.
Sauerkraut and pork sausages are very popular in Trieste.
Polenta is also popular with pork sausages cooked in a tomato sugo. I also like pork sausages braised with borlotti beans.
There is nothing like seppie – inkfish braised in white wine, parsley and garlic and served with polenta. Sometimes white polenta (made from white corn and called polenta bianca ) is favoured with fish, rather than the polenta gialla (yellow, made from yellow corn).
Below in the photo are two typical dishes of Trieste, seppie in umido (on the left) and some iota.
Below is a photo of an ink fish. Inside will be a sac of ink that once removed can be used to flavour the dish.
It is not always obvious that they are ink fish, in Australia they are also often sold as squid. Not all of them will have a sac of ink; this photo is in a market in Venice…. you can tell that they are ink fish.
Here is a photo of polenta as an accompaniment to tripe I relished in a Trattoria in Sienna, Tuscany….it was only last year.
Polenta makes a fabulous accompaniment for pan fried or char grilled red radicchio . This used to be a favourite way to serve polenta by my mother. A little tomato salsa on the char grilled version is very tasty.
And this is polenta with broccoli (or broccolini) with bagna cauda . I first ate it in a restaurant in Hobart and it was presented on a bed of soft polenta – called polenta concia in Italy; this version of polenta is cooked in milk, sometimes stock and has butter and Parmesan cheese added to it once it is cooked. It does not have to be Parmesan, various local regional cheeses are used – Asiago from Trentino and the Veneto, Fontina from Valle d’Aosta, Taleggio from Lombardy and the Italian Alps, etc. Bagna cauda on polenta is not a traditional dish, but I did enjoy this innovation and replicated it at home, .
Polenta is also good with sarde in saor. The sardines are fried then left to marinate with onions and vinegar. Sometimes raisins and pine nuts are added. Although I have made this many times, I do not have many photos. This is often the case with other things I cook. Sometimes I am just too busy to take a photos before I present food or I forget to do it.
Also common is polenta pasticciata (sometimes spelled pastizzada as in the Veneto dialect and it means messed up/ fiddled with) . Layers of cooked polenta are alternated with flavourings. The most common is with sugo (tomato and meat braise) or braised mushrooms or salame, pancetta, and various cheeses …..or whatever you like to fiddle with.
The version above is with Fontina, Gorgonzola and some braised button mushrooms cooked in white wine – I was just dealing with leftovers, not a traditional dish, but tasty. The layers of polenta are then baked: it is very much like a baked lasagna.
Polenta is easily found and it does not have to be imported from Italy.
Cooking polenta is easy.
1 polenta – 4 water ratio, salt.
Bring water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan; pour polenta slowly into boiling water, whisking constantly until all polenta is stirred in and there are no lumps. I use a whisk.
Reduce heat to low and simmer, whisking often, until polenta starts to thicken, about 5 minutes. This is where I swap the whisk for a long handled, wooden spoon; the polenta will begin to bubble and can spit so the long spoon or an oven mit is necessary.
Stir the polenta regularly , at least every 5 to 6 minutes. Polenta is done when the texture thickens and is creamy and it begins to pull away from the sides of the saucepan. It may take up to 30 minutes.
Links to some of the recipes:
GULASCH (Goulash as made in Trieste)
CHICKEN GOULASH (Gulasch di pollo from Trieste)
SEPPIE IN UMIDO CON POLENTA (Cuttlefish or Squid With Black Ink And Polenta from Trieste)
LUGANIGHE CON CAPUZI GARBI; Sausages and sauerkraut, and yes, it is Italian regional cuisine
PIEDMONTESE favourites (bagna cauda)
TASMANIA, FOOD, ART, HOBART and Bagna Cauda
MARINADED FISH and a recipe for PESCE IN SAOR – PESCE IN SAOR
FUNGHI AL FUNGHETTO (Braised mushrooms)
WILD MUSHROOMS; Saffron Coloured, Pine Mushrooms and Slippery Jacks