Polenta: The Long and the Short of It, with Inspiration from Marcella
Almost twenty-five years ago I wrote an article for Cook magazine entitled “Polenta: To Stir With Love.” In it, I defended the traditional method of stirring cornmeal and water continuously while simmering on the stove for silky, lump-free results, just as I had seen my mother and countless cooks in the polenta-loving regions of Italy. Although most cornmeal package instructions call for simmering it for about 45 minutes, many Italian cooks believe that it should be cooked for at least an hour or even longer, to improve its creaminess and make it more digestible. (Where agitation was once done by hand, today, electric polenta manufacturers, common in home and restaurant kitchens alike throughout Italy, get the job done.)
For Italians in Veneto, Lombardy, Valle d’Aosta, Friuli, Friuli-Venezia Giulia and parts of Piedmont, who have relied on polenta as a mainstay of their diet for 400 years, only continuous and prolonged agitation will suffice. There, polenta culture is tradition, sustenance and poetry in one, and whether turned by hand or by an electric polenta maker, it still shakes slowly and long.
Two gastronomes of the last century, Luigi Carnacina and Vincenzo Buonassisi, in their classic, “Il Libro della Polenta”, my first polenta primer, wrote:
Stir, stir, without fear…. You have to continue with that blessed cane (wooden pallet), at least half an extra hour [we are up to an hour now]. And do you know why? Because this extra cooking, these extra rotations in the pot of polenta, always in the same direction [clockwise], always rhythmic, are never enough, make the polenta more digestible, more delicious; They take on whatever slightly bitter taste is sometimes left, which only reveals the restlessness and impatience of the one who has cooked it. After an hour, on the other hand, the polenta is cooked, but if you continue with the agitation even longer, with the highest degree of devotion, it will become perfect.”
It is true that the
more it is removed, the better the polenta and that, in fact, it can never be removed long enough. I know this because I have moved for two hours, once, on a quiet day when there were no tasks at hand and no children or husbands to attend to. The resulting porridge was more delicious than any other I had ever made. That particular marathon was driven by the pure meditative pleasure of watching the gentle golden waves rippling into my old copper pot, their vapors filling the room as I watched a snowfall from my kitchen window. When I have the luxury of having time for such a long stirring, I do just that, adding more hot water as needed, just as Carnacin and Buonassisi instruct, to keep the dough soft and supple as the beans produce their inimitable fragrance and the polenta reaches perfection. But who, among us, in today’s fast-paced world, has so much luxury of time?
Mini-Stirring for Moderns
Therefore, writing about polenta for Cook’s in the early days of the American love affair with genuine Italian cuisine, I could, in good conscience, write that one could make a useful polenta in forty-five minutes. The cook’s test kitchen, always looking for ways to make faster and better recipes, was delighted with the idea that making polenta in the traditional way was still a daily ritual in some parts of Italy. However, the editors were determined to find a way to avoid having to be stationed in the pot for the better part of an hour. (Since then, quick-cook polenta has become commonplace, but the taste and texture of the original long cooker is superior, and so on with this story.)
My paper was published, but Cook experimented and came up with a microwave method to cook it in half the time with hardly any shaking, and they published that method along with mine. Several years later, Marcella Hazan, in her book, “Essentials of Italian Cooking,” provided a different recipe, “Polenta by No-Stirring,” which pleasantly surprised me. I recently asked Victor Hazan, husband and collaborator of the late cookbook author about it, and he explained the derivation of the method (and sent me the vintage photo below):
Marcella had a housekeeper/assistant, Maria, who lived with us in New York and Italy for over twenty years…. She was from Badoere, a small town in the Veneto. Her cooking repertoire was limited and rustic, usually not a fertile source of ideas for Marcella, but one day Marcella asked her to make polenta for us, she found her making it more or less by the method described in the recipe, which Maria said was the way they did it at home. Marcella was intrigued, and on another occasion, and then another, Marcella never tried anything once, she did and perfected it herself.
Marcella’s recipe, which she called the “No-Agitation Method” (I have renamed my adaptation of the recipe the “Mini-Agitation Method”) in her aforementioned cookbook, shares principles with the Cook’s method, although cooking is done on the stove, not in a microwave. While long, continuous agitation certainly develops the creaminess of the beans, I have since used both methods when too many other cooking tasks need my attention at the same time. The important thing is to avoid the raw taste and gritty mouthfeel of undercooked cornmeal. Whichever method you use, the old trick of keeping some simmering water on the rear burner and stirring a little as needed to dilute the polenta in case it thickens too much, still applies. You will know that cornmeal has become polenta when the hot dough can be easily separated from the sides of the pot with a wooden spoon or wire whisk.
Since this post was first published, a friend, Rosemary Melli, wrote to me about Paula Wolfert’s recipe for baked polenta, a method many restaurant chefs follow, baking it for three hours. Rosemary writes, “I use this one now almost all the time (yes, since TIME is the problem), and polenta cooks (slowly) for about 1.5 hours, and it’s perfect every time.” In her Mediterranean Clay Pot Cooking,” Paula writes, “[It’s] a great way to produce perfect polenta without much work, using a well-oiled clay casserole. The method described in the recipe gets extra flavor from coarse cornmeal by allowing you to toast while cooking, resulting in a soft, tender polenta with a bright, lovely shine.”
Another message came from cookbook author and purveyor, Beth Hensperger of Palo Alto, California. She wrote, “The slow cooker does an admirable and gloriously simple job of a laborious task that usually has the cook standing and stirring for an hour.”
Here are my adaptations of the four methods of mini-agitation. Keep in mind that for successful results, the amounts of ingredients required should not be reduced in any of the recipes. And about replacing instant polenta with the long-cooking variety, stay tuned.
This recipe is suitable for the traditional long-cooking variety of Italian cornmeal polenta, either fine-grained or coarse. Not suitable for quick-cooking polenta.
Preparation time: 3 minutes Cooking time:
24 minutesTotal time: about 30 minutesYield: about
8 cups cooked polenta
: 8 cups water
1 tablespoon fine sea salt 2 cups imported fine or coarse grain Italian polenta cornmeal (non-GMO or organic use only)
In a 4-quart microwave-safe container with a tight-fitting lid, whisk over water, salt, and cornmeal. Cover completely and cook on full power in a microwave for 24 minutes total, removing the lid to stir well, then replacing the lid, every 6 minutes. Polenta should be thick and creamy, and pull cleanly on the sides of the bowl easily when ready. Serve it loose immediately or twist it on your work surface so that it fits according to the recipe of your choice.
Polenta by the mini-stirring method
This recipe is suitable for the traditional variety of prolonged cooking of Italian cornmeal polenta, whether fine-grained or coarse. Not suitable for quick-cooking polenta.
Preparation time: 5 minutes Cooking time: about
90 minutesTotal time: about 1-1/2 hoursYield: about 8
cups cooked polenta
water 1 tablespoon fine sea salt 2 cups imported Italian polenta cornmeal of fine or coarse grain
- Boil 9 cups of water in a wide, deep, thick-bottomed pot with a tight-fitting lid. Keep a separate pot or kettle filled with about 4 cups of boiling water on the back burner. Add the salt to the pot of polenta.
- Using a large, heavy whisk, or a spoon of long-handled wood, add the cornmeal in a slow, steady flow to prevent lumps from forming without breaking the boil. Keep the cornmeal boiling over medium heat for 2 minutes, stirring continuously. Cover the pot tightly and continue cooking without breaking the boil, over medium to medium-low heat for 10 minutes. Uncover and stir well. Simmer for 10 minutes, uncovering the pot and stirring, then replacing the lid, two more times, adding a cup or so of additional boiling water from the secondary pot, or kettle, if the porridge seems too thick. Continue to simmer, uncovered, until the polenta comes off the sides of the pot easily when stirred, 5-10 minutes more, pouring more reserved hot water as needed to loosen it if it appears too thin. If it seems too thick, add additional boiling water; If it looks too thin, let it simmer a little longer to thicken. It is performed when the polenta is easily separated from the sides of the pot with a whisk or wooden spoon. When ready, stir with a long wooden spoon from bottom to top, reaching the sides of the pan to peel the dough off the lower corners of the pan. It is ready to be made into a serving bowl or a greased counter surface, depending on your recipe.
Paula Wolfert’s Oven Polenta in a Clay Pot I
asked Paula about the origins of this recipe, and she wrote, “It’s a recipe that’s been around for a long time… I found it on the back of Golden Pheasant polenta bags, a very good San Francisco artisanal brand. I called the owner to ask for history and permission, he said he had learned it years before from a friend’s mother.”
Preparation time: 5 minutes Cooking time: about
55 minutesTotal time: about 1 hourYield: about 8
cups cooked polenta
cups organic polenta cornmeal ground to imported medium or coarse grain stone 2 tablespoons unsalted butter or extra virgin olive oil 2 teaspoons fine
sea salt Equipment: Paula prefers a 12-inch Spanish casserole (clay pot); Other ceramic oven-proof baking dishes can be replaced Directions
- Preheat an oven to 350 degrees F. In the casserole, stir the cornmeal, 8-10 cups of cold water, butter and salt. Bake, uncovered, for 1 hour and 20 minutes.
- Stir the polenta and bake for 10 more minutes.
- Remove the casserole from the oven and place it on a wooden surface or a folded kitchen towel to prevent cracking. Let the polenta sit for 5 minutes before seeing it in a bowl of butter. Serve hot.
Paula’s note: The consistency of polenta is a factor in deciding how much liquid to use. For soft polenta, use 5 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal, and for firm polenta, 4 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal.
It’s not your mother’s slow cooker Polenta
Some other uses
- polenta Pour polenta onto a marble board, or onto a greased shallow baking sheet or bread pans for cooling; It will harden, but it will be quite tender. Refrigerate, covered, if not used within a few hours. You can then fry the slices or squares in butter or olive oil and serve along with roasted meats or egg dishes.
- Cut into pieces for the polenta “pasticciata”, arranged in layers between a sauce as for a baked lasagna.
- Brush with olive oil and roast until charred on both sides.
Thanks to Victor Hazan, Cook magazine, Paula Wolfert and Beth Hensperger.