Originally made with chestnut flour, polenta was once the catchall term for any grain boiled to a porridge and flavored with spices and cheese. When corn came from the New World to the Italian Peninsula, polenta was made with cornmeal. Today, polenta is found in two forms: as a solid cake or as a creamy grits-like mush. In this recipe, I go with the mush.
Polenta is much less labor-intensive than it seems. It is, quite simply, cornmeal cooked in salt water. Many insist that you start with traditional course yellow cornmeal and stir constantly for 45 minutes to an hour. Some start with lukewarm water and cook over low heat for upwards of two hours. In Piemonte, they cook polenta exclusively in a copper pot over open fire.
I often like to use quick-cooking polenta. Use five cups of water for one cup of polenta; then season the water with sugar and salt, honey or thyme (the sweetness of the sugar or honey complements the corn flavor). Once the corn meal is whisked in and you’re free from the danger of lumpiness, cook the polenta over medium-high heat for five or six minutes.
I serve this dish hot and runny directly from the pot. Polenta can be accompanied by any number of ragus, vegetables or meats. It’s the perfect substitute for pasta.
This is comfort food of another world.