Hippo Manchester
January 5, 2006


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Food: A sunny Italian side dish

Polenta adds new flavor and texture to meals

By Susan Reilly  news@hippopress.com

Polenta is the workhorse of the kitchen.

It is a blank canvas against which chefs can prop up roast pork tenderloin, lamb chops and roasted chicken legs. Polenta is the oft-overlooked sponge needed to mop up the savory sauces from hearty winter dishes like veal osso bucco and coq au vin.

Recently polenta has been appearing on more and more menus in restaurants that are not Italian-focused, replacing the tired garlic mashed potato as the backdrop.

At A Taste of Europe in Manchester, a creamy ham and parmesan polenta provides a flavorful pillow for rosemary chicken. Roasted corn with Chanterelle mushrooms polenta supports a grilled venison chop at Baldwin’s on Elm. Scrambled eggs get a boost at Black Forest Café in Amherst when served atop an herb goat cheese polenta. When Michael Timothy’s in Nashua offers a grilled fish special, it is often served with a side of grilled polenta.

“Polenta is fun to work with and fun to eat. Simply add any combination of cheese and herbs and it is awesome,” said Brian Siembor, executive chef at A Taste of Europe.

In the world’s mind, if there is an Italian food trinity, pasta and pizza would make the list, but in America at least, the third dish would be up for debate.

Polenta has been misunderstood in the states until just recently. There is a myth that cooking a simple pot of polenta can be laborious and time consuming — not true. In fact, polenta can be served so many different ways, some of which can be real showstoppers when put in front of dinner guests, that it is worth it to experiment and find the method that works best for you.

In ancient Roman times, polenta was a staple eaten as either a soft porridge or a hard cake and was made out of whatever grains were on hand. It was considered life—sustaining to generations of peasants. When Columbus returned from the New World and introduced maize to Italy, it quickly became the grain of choice for polenta.

Polenta is comfort food too. Judy Rodgers, the chef and owner of Zuni Café in San Francisco said that in the days immediately following the 1989 earthquake, Zuni sold only bowls of polenta to distraught Bay residents. She credits polenta with keeping her business alive.

Marcella Hazan, author of Essentials of Italian Cooking, wrote that although pasta has become universally accepted as the dish of Italy, just a couple of generations ago, pasta was actually foreign in parts of Italy. While southern Italians eat pasta, northern Italians eat polenta.

Making polenta is simple. Boil water in a large pot. Sprinkle salt and add cornmeal in a thin stream. It is important to add the cornmeal slowly. Stir until the spoon can stand up in the pot by itself. And, remind yourself that polenta is both flexible and forgiving.

It seems that there are as many different flavor combinations as cooking methods for polenta. While few would advocate using the microwave to cook polenta, it has been done.

Polenta is readily available in the supermarket pasta aisle and is economical. Pastene makes an excellent polenta. Precooked polenta can be found in rolls often in the deli section. This firm roll of polenta is perfect for cutting into rings and frying.

Like anything else, purists who would scoff at using jarred pesto or a bag of grated cheese will turn their noses up at instant or precooked polenta.

The choice is yours, but be certain that this is one dish that simply requires a good heavy pot and a long-handled wooden spoon to be a success.


Squash Sag Polenta

Recipe by Brian Siembor, Executive Chef at A Taste of Europe

12 oz. butternut squash, finely diced (approx. ½ average squash)
64 oz. vegetable or chicken stock
1 cup minced leeks
¼ cup goat cheese
½ cup milk
1/8 cup minced sun dried tomatoes
2½ cups instant fine polenta
1 cup parmesan cheese
1 tsp. grated nutmeg
1 tsp. cinnamon
1 tsp. salt
1 tsp. pepper
4 fresh sage leaves, chopped

Sprinkle squash with salt, pepper and olive oil and roast at 375 degrees until soft and golden brown (approximately 10 minutes).

Add leeks and sun-dried tomatoes to stock and simmer for 10 minutes.

When squash is done, puree into stock.

Add milk, goat cheese, nutmeg and cinnamon.

Blend in salt, pepper and chopped sage.

Slowly add instant polenta while whisking.

Cook for two minutes.

Fold in parmesan cheese with rubber spatula and pour into 6” baking pan to cool.

When polenta has fully cooled, cut into desired shape, dredge in flour and deep fry for two minutes until golden brown.

Top with tomato gastrique and garnish with goat cheese and a drizzle of balsamic vinegar.

Tomato gastrique

1 cup fresh marinara
1 tablespoon reduced balsamic vinaigrette

Blend over low heat and serve. The result is a sweet sauce with reduced acidity.

NOTE: This dish is extremely flexible and the final plated presentation is gorgeous. It is easy here to substitute other squashes, such as pumpkin. The beauty of polenta is that anything goes.

Polenta, the speedy version

6 oz. instant polenta
5 tablespoons mascarpone cheese
1 cup raw spinach, chopped

Cook the polenta according to the directions on the box. Before the polenta thickens, blend in cheese and spinach. Once spinach has wilted, stir once more and serve.

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