When Columbus brought corn from the New World to Italy it became an immediate hit. Corn was ground into flour and eventually it replaced earlier grain mixtures of millet, spelt and chickpeas. Roman soldiers and peasants cooked a sustaining mean of hot gruel known as pulmentum from these grains, and heralded the arrival of corn as an opportunity to add diversity to this simple meal.
Corn flourished in the climate of northern Italy and it eventually became the dominant grain used for making pulmentum or polenta. Today, polenta remains one of the favorite dishes of northern Italy. The best polenta ( which can refer to to the cut of the corn as well as the dish, although the word polenta can also mean a dish that is made from farro or buckwheat flour as well ) comes from the Lombardia region, particularly the area of Bergamo north of Milan, where ancient trains of corn are selectively bred and grown. Polenta runs the gamut from fine cut to medium and coarse cut.
Italian chefs have devised many delicious recipes featuring polenta, and in addition, there are numerous thoughts on how to cook the best polenta. Some recipes use just water or stock and cornmeal, others incorporate eggs and cheese or heavy cream. Polenta can be served hot and creamy or left to firm up, the cut into squares and sautéed in butter in a hot skillet. And of course, entire books have been written about what to ladle over or serve alongside of polenta: a wild mushroom ragu, an assortment of grilled meats, spicy tomato sauce, a medley of seasonal vegetables, and even sweet toppings such as a cooked fruit stew.
We sell two distinctively different polentas which are both extremely tasty and extremely popular. ( Remember….. while all polents is cornmeal, not all cornmeal has the substance, structure or proper cut to make a good polenta.)
• Moretti Bramata Polenta: coarse ground yellow polenta from the Moretti family in Bergamo who have been growing corn and grinding it for polenta since 1922. Carefully selected varieties of corn are air-dried in open barns until hardened. The kernels are stone ground and packed in air-tight seal bricks to retain their natural freshness and superior flavor.
• Tenuta Castello Artisan Stone-ground Organic Polenta: a flecked yellow polenta made from three heritage varieties of corn –Marano, Astice and Quattro File. The Vercellone family have been cultivating grains for over 100 years in the heart of the Po Delta near Vercelli, Italy. Their grains are processed in traditional mills that leave much of each grain’s kernel intact without polishing.
Polenta is incredibly versatile and easy to prepare. Here is a recipe from Chef Joel Robuchon from his new book, The Complete Robuchon, Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2009.
Serves 6-8 as a side dish
1 quart milk
6 tablespoons cold butter
2 cloves garlic, peeled
2/3 teaspoon salt
2 pinches grated nutmeg
generous pinch of pepper
1 & 1/3 cups medium or coarse-ground polenta
2 eggs plus 3 egg yolks
½ cup grated parmesan cheese
½ cup grated gruyere cheese
oil for greasing the pan
butter for sautéing cooked polenta squares
1. Rinse a saucepan under running water but do not dry it off. Add the milk, butter, garlic, 2/3 teaspoon salt, grated nutmeg, and pepper. Bring to a boil over high heat. When the butter has melted, lower the heat and gradually shower the polenta into the liquid, stirring with a wooden spoon. Cook for 8 minutes over medium-low heat, stirring constantly.
2. Mix the eggs and yolks together in a bowl. After 8 minutes, take the saucepan off the heat, add the eggs slowly to the polenta, stirring vigorously, and cook 3-4 minutes more over lower heat.
3. Remove the pot from the heat, remove the garlic cloves and stir in the parmesan and gruyere cheese. Taste for salt and pepper and adjust if needed.
4. Grease a rimmed sheet pan with oil using a pastry brush and pour the hot polenta into the pan. Smooth with the spoon into an even 1-inch layer. Refrigerate for 2 hours.
5. Cut the polenta into squares and sauté in 1 tablespoon butter in a skillet over high heat. Brown the squares on each side and top each with a little of the melted butter.