Polenta, Angelo e Demone

First, Some Background

Polenta in a dish
Barry Wong/Photographer's Choice RF/Getty Images

Most people think of pasta as the quintessential Italian Dish, and this is true for much of the Peninsula, especially the south. Polenta, on the other hand, was the staple food of the poor in the North, especially those living out in the country. Prior to the introduction of corn in the late 1700s, it consisted of grains and/or legumes mashed and cooked to a mush, and seasoned with oil, onion, fennel, honey, or whatever was available. Uninspiring, but certainly nutritious enough to keep people alive.

With the introduction of corn, things changed radically, as the land owners discovered that the new grain was more productive than the traditional grains, and they could, therefore, devote more of their land to crops that would bring them income if they had their tenant farmers subsist on corn. The corn was milled like the traditional grains had always been, and polenta came to mean corn meal mush. Before long poor families subsisted on nothing else, as Pasquale Villari reported in his book, Lettere Meridionali, in 1886:

"...The farmers known as disobbligati (day laborers) support more than 20,000 families around Mantova, and there are many others who aren’t much better off. These laborers earn a wage of about 1.2 Lire per day, when they work, and their hardships last 10, 12, and even 14 hours daily; the commission (investigating the lot of the workers) justly termed their conditions homicidal. The farmers and their families survive almost exclusively on polenta, to which they add onions and bad cheese in the evening, but not always. When they’re working they also eat bread and soup once a week, but during the winter it’s polenta morning noon and night, and the three meals are frequently compressed into one. What’s more, the polenta is frequently made from corn that has spoiled for lack of drying kilns, and has either fermented or sprouted. This state of affairs worsens day by day, and has already begun to touch the more wealthy farmers, to the point that they have begun to sell their pigs, and the portion of grain assured them by their leases, to buy corn to stay their hunger throughout the winter.

Alas, simply grinding corn to make cornmeal produces a food that's filling but not nutritious, as the human digestive system is unable to get the nutrients (the Amerindians who lived on corn processed it differently). The exclusive dependance on cornmeal polenta brought with it an appalling nutritional deficiency called pellagra, which (quoting Villari again) "begins with head and back pains, numbness of the extremities, and stomach aches. The sight becomes foggy, hearing declines, and then palsy sets in, starting in the trunk and spreading to the extremities and tongue. It’s generally a progressive disease, but can become acute, almost like typhus, and kill quickly. However, it usually takes several months, with flare-ups that exhaust the victim and can kill him in a variety of ways that mimic other diseases. It frequently induces madness, which is also intermittent, and takes many forms, in particular depression and despondency..."

Why, you wonder, would anyone want to eat a food that brings all this on?

The answer then was that there was nothing else, and those who were unable to emigrate had no choice. North Italians still eat it today, on the other hand, because it is very tasty, extremely versatile, and an ideal accompaniment to all sorts of things. Though it can be bought ready-made, purists are correct in saying that what you make at home is better.

Making Polenta | Polenta Recipes and recipes well suited to polenta


The process is straight forward. You'll need:

  • 1 pound or slightly more of coarsely ground corn meal (you want corn meal the consistency of fine to medium-grained sand, not flour, and if possible stone-ground)
  • 2 quarts boiling water (have more handy)
  • A heaping teaspoon of salt

Set the water on the fire in a wide bottomed pot and add the salt. When it comes to a boil, add the corn meal in a very slow stream (you don't want the pot to stop boiling), stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep lumps from forming. Continue stirring, in the same direction, as the mush thickens, for about a half-hour (the longer you stir the better the polenta will be; the finished polenta should have the consistency of firm mashed potatoes), adding boiling water as necessary. The polenta is done when it peels easily off the sides of the pot.

Serves 4.

This is the standard technique you will find in all Italian cookbooks, and it does take a fair amount of effort because if you stop stirring the polenta will stick and burn -- enough effort that a company makes paioli (traditional copper polenta pots) that have motorized attachments to take care of the stirring. They work quite well, but you do have to buy one.

John instead wrote to tell me of a vastly simpler technique:
"Fancied doing your "Verza e Luganega" as it's chilly here too (Arese, just outside Milan), so consulted your polenta recipe as well. This repeated the timeless mantra that you have to stir, stir, stir. This we have always believed and confess that it tended to douse enthusiasm for frequent polenta making.

"That's until our friend Patrizia recounted a family visit to the Valle d'Aosta. They went into a trattoria quite late in the afternoon, way past lunchtime, and asked if they could eat. Yes, they could. And was there polenta? Yes of course, subito. Even at half-past three in the afternoon. This seemed odd if it always had to be made specially in 40-minute batches.

"Then they were told the secret:
"Prepare your polenta exactly as before, but once you've drizzled the corn flour into the boiling water, you cover it with brown paper (I just open up the brown paper bag we get our bread in), clamp the lid on, move to the back burner and turn the heat right down to minimum. Then, after the statutory 40 minutes, hey presto, your polenta's ready - with no stirring. It will also stay warm for... anyone turning up two hours late for lunch.<br/>
"We've tried it and it really does work."

Remo suggests yet another method that is perfect if you plan ahead:
"My old grandmother (born in Italy) taught me years ago how to avoid the drudgery of having to stir and stir and stir polenta. Put the basic recipie in a slow cooker. Cook on low over night (at least about 6 hours). In the morning you will have the smoothest, creamiest polenta you only dreamed about. A single portion can be made in a bowl set in water as in a double-boiler arrangement (level to match bowl contents) -- saves having to clean the cooker pot."

Loris read Remo's suggestion and says,
"Great idea if you're making enough for a few people. However, when we make it, it is a family affair usually involving 5-10 persons, or more, for dinner. What we've found, in order to avoid the lumps associated with adding the corn meal in the boiling water, is to use a hand mixer. The mixer does not replace the stirring that is involved in order to avoid the polenta from sticking to the bottom of the pot, but zero lumps are guaranteed."

Gian John Banchero instead uses the Pressure Cooker:
I'm the product of a Piemontese father and a Sicilian mother. Mom had no particular connection with polenta so over the years she made it in a pressure cooker, sometimes to the chagrin of my northern relatives who still use a copper paiolo, taking pride in their famed elbow grease. I make polenta in the pressure cooker 99% of the time, if not I don't think I'd make it often.

During my last visit to Piemonte and Milano, I was surprised to find out that many relatives use the pressure cooker method.

This is my (and Mom's) method for pressure cooker polenta:

  • Amounts of polenta meal and water needed
  • Lump of butter
  • Salt

Throw all ingredients in the pressure cooker, cover. At high heat bring all to a brisk boil, cover the steam hole (whatever it's called), lower heat to a very low flame and cook for ten minutes. Once pressure has lowered--either naturally or under cold water--remove the lid and give the polenta a good stir in order to blend in the liquid. Plop out on a board and serve as usual.

A final observation: While polenta is nice year round, making it in the summer will heat your kitchen, which is something you would likely rather do without. Commercially prepared polenta doesn't have the consistency of the home-made variety but will work and is a terrific timesaver. Not to mention cool.

Polenta: History and background | Polenta Recipes and recipes well suited to polenta

To close (for now), polenta is also wonderful as an appetizer, cut into 1 by 3-inch, 1/2-inch thick squares, fried, and spread with mushroom sauce or liver paté.

Polenta: History and background | Making Polenta