January 5, 2006
Food: A sunny Italian side dish
Polenta adds new flavor and texture to meals
By Susan Reilly firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
A year of eats
All-you-can-read guide to breakfast
A bagel by any other label
A picnic — it’s romance with ants
A sweet burst of summer, in stages
It's What's For Dinner, Lunch, And Dessert
Be it ever so
humble, the burger rules
snacks for your movie
Is For Cookie And Christmas And Cool Combo
A Holiday For The Rest Of Us
Easter In A Sugar Coma
Chinese soup is
Chocolate cake makes everything better
Competition flows like chocolate
Flake Chicken, Honeycomb Salad
at the "Your House Bistro"
Dread The Bread
Up Your Next Meal
Out Of The Box
Your Way Back To Health
With Very Bad Brownies
A Crowd The Morning After
cider house rules
ahead — run silent, run deep
Goodbye corn syrup, hello organic oatmeal
Go Indian for
Halloween candy for
Have a Happy Meal and a happier wallet
Cookies - The Easy Way
Potluck 101-Tips For The Kitchen Novice
you like them apples?
not easy to be cheesy
It’s not Christmas
We Forget The Humble Squash
Keeping your cool while you eat
Living through your salad days
Beyond The Hot Dog Stand
Lunching your way to a less toxic you
meat and a man's gotta eat
Moist and delicious
chicken — no, really
Cookies, The Miracle Cure
Night, When The Stars Come Out To Eat
Up A Slice Of Teriyaki Pie
Pies Are Darn Tasty
Plates Are The Next Big Thing
'za not pie in the sky
it’s what’s for dinner, again
coolers, just add sunlight
A Walk On The Dark Side
The joys of a simple
of comfort food
One-Note Cook Book
New American Plate Cookbook
Stickiest, Hottest & Sweetest Of Love's Labors
The taste of retro
Unheralded Peanut Butter Cookies
The union of sweet and heat
Weekly Dish (12-16-04)
Weekly Dish (12-23-04)
There's a Barbecue Bonanza Next Door
Four: Adding Diet To The Mix
Was Hot And Haute In 2004
When $$ trumps urge to dine out
in doubt, go for the organic
else will cool, Slurp it
Say Potato, She'll Say Potato,Too
say tomato, writer says lunch