Comfort by the Bowl
Story by Debbra Mikaelsen - Images by Oliva Sari-Goerlach
Polenta is a lot like pizza.
Polenta is nothing like pizza.
Both are incredibly versatile food foundations that become elevated by the addition of delightful things, often involving cheese, sausage, charcuterie, tomato sauce, and selectively chosen vegetables. Both are generally considered to be Italian in origin. And by some uncanny coincidence, both words are embraced by the letters P and A.
Pizza is a sociable snack. A moveable feast that is finger-friendly. Often served in party-sized pies and sliced into wedges, it’s easy to share. Polenta, however, is a soft, cozy blanket of a meal. It says hunker down by the fire. Stay home with a book. Watch the rain hurl itself against the windows. It is rarely served at parties and hardly ever graces the pages of a restaurant menu. It is definitely not finger food—except, of course, when it does this cool shape-shifting trick that pizza is incapable of. More on that later.
I’ve loved pizza since my first encounter with the stuff. I was about ten years old and my oldest sister made it from a Kraft Pizza Kit in a box. To be fair, this product doesn’t deserve to be called pizza, but I didn’t know that then, sheltered as I was from most foods that didn’t fall into the meat, potatoes, or cookies category. When it came out of the oven, we cut it into crisp squares and it was absolutely delicious. Since that time, my relationship with pizza has gotten better. As has the pizza itself.
Such has not been the case with polenta, a porridge-like substance of cornmeal, water, and salt that I spent years trying to love but never managed to, until recently. Even when strewn with almost twenty dollars’ worth of the season’s first chanterelles, sautéed in butter and sage, and sprinkled with freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, I didn’t quite love the polenta that came from my kitchen.
I’d been making polenta by following instructions in my favourite Italian cookbooks: patiently stir cornmeal into boiling salted water. Perhaps because I’m a purist at heart, perhaps because I have something that borders on hero worship for Marcella Hazan, that’s how I kept making it.
Then Nigel Slater got my attention. He’s not even Italian, but he showed me how to love polenta. Instead of water, he cooks it in whole milk, splashing in a bit of cream and a knob of butter to finish it off. Lucy Waverman’s recipe also calls for milk and cream. You can use a good rich stock instead of water, too. Maybe these versions are less authentic—after all, polenta was originally a staple food and intended to be budget-friendly—but they sure do dress it up.
When I topped that truly creamy polenta with mushrooms and cheese, it was an entirely different meal. Like Mr. Slater, I prefer it soft, closer in texture to cream of wheat than to oatmeal. A bowl of warm comfort that pairs well with most things: caramelized onions or shallots, braised winter greens, grilled sausages, roast meats, tomato sauce.
Suddenly I understood what all the fuss was about. I even started wondering why I’d never heard of a polenta joint, a rustic restaurant that only serves polenta with a variety of toppings available.
Maybe it wouldn’t fly; polenta’s pretty simple to make at home, and perhaps best eaten in pajama-style pants. You need a bit of time and a touch of patience, but it’s easy to get along with. It will forgive you for adding a little more liquid if it’s too thick. It doesn’t mind experimentation with other vegetables and cured meats. It’s ready to play nicely with almost any cheese.
Back to the shape-shifting trick. As it cools, polenta gets firm enough to slice and pan-fry—or toast, grill, or broil. For this reason, cooks who are efficient with their time often double a polenta recipe, use half the batch to eat immediately from a bowl, and pour the rest onto a lightly oiled plate or sheet to refrigerate for at least 45 minutes, then once it’s set, slice and cook using one of the above methods. You can create a version of oven fries to dip in aïoli, or eat it like bread topped with any good thing you might think of. You can even stack it with layers of cheese, meat sauce, and béchamel to create a reasonable facsimile of lasagne. Or smother slabs with cheese and put them in the oven until the cheese melts. Or cut into long sticks, about one by three or four inches, brush with oil, and broil for 15 minutes until golden brown.
What’s in a name? Plenty. Although different varieties of corn are used, and the grains are processed differently, there are two American staples called corn mush and grits. As a concept, they are similar to polenta. In fact, Bob’s Red Mill produces a product labelled “Corn Grits. Also Known as Polenta.” Marcella considers this blurring unfortunate, and I concur. No thank you to mush and grits. Yes please to second helpings of creamy, cheesy polenta.
Packaged ground cornmeal is sold at many grocery stores and Italian specialty food shops (some of the latter label the ground corn itself “polenta”). There is also something called polenta that is sold in plastic-wrapped tubular shapes like large yellow sausages; this is actually already cooked and cooled. Its intended purpose is for broiling or grilling as described above, but the brands I’ve tried have underwhelmed. That stuff seems pointless to me.
Find the Polenta for a Wintery Day recipe here:
Exceptionally fond of pancetta and porchetta, Debbra Mikaelsen advocates for Prosecco’s change of spelling. She has never been to Parma. Debbramikaelsen.com
Olivia Sari-Goerlach is a food, portrait + documentary photographer who loves to play with food in her work. You can her food portraits at www.osg.photography/food and instagram.com/olisarig #osgfood