I recently made un’altro passo (another step) into the vita italiana…or perhaps more specifically, in this case, la vita bresciana (from Brescia, my region of Italy). At my first full family meal here in Italy I was presented with horse and donkey meat, as well as an unknown, slightly stodgy yellowish substance – sound appetising yet? This Italian equivalent of mash-potato is the staple of any roast meal, and is so popular in the northern regions that southerners have named the northern people after it: “polentoni”.
Having accepted my permanent residence here, I decided it was finally time to class myself among these “polentoni”, and what better way than by attempting this traditional side dish. Each region has slight variations, but I will be focusing on the Brescian form.
Polenta takes varying forms, having developed its popularity in poorer times when food was scarce, and had to be used well. Hence, the ingredients are often extremely basic, with only recent recipes making them more “exotic”. Yet in my experience, the bresciani stick to the traditional ways.
The first batch is a simple mix of cornflour (amido di mais) and water, usually one litre of water to every two or three hundred grams of flour: it depends on family preference, ie, what your nonna tells you. If you buy the normal flour the cooking time is at least forty minutes, but after my experience I highly recommend buying the “polenta pronta”, which takes only a few minutes. It isn’t difficult, but you have to continually stir the mixture every few minutes whilst leaving it on a medium heat. Don’t worry if it sticks a bit to the edge of the pan, its normal for a crosta to form. Also, make sure you are using a large, deep pan to give plenty of room for it to cook.
Once satisfyingly stodgy, serve the polenta onto a wooden serving board. (I’ve asked a few people why the wooden material is so important, and while some suggest its simply tradition, others say it helps absorb any remaining moisture to give the polenta the best texture.) The mixture is then divided into rectangles for everyone to serve themselves. If there’s any remaining meat fat, make a whole in the centre of your polenta and pour it in for added flavour.
If you’re eating in an Italian home, its very likely that cheeses will be bought out after the meat, and in northern Italy these will generally be parmesan and gorgonzola. So now it’s time for polenta round two. Take a good chuck of either cheese and dump it into the polenta, letting it melt into the mixture….then enjoy!
Finally, if you find yourself filling up, don’t worry about the leftovers. For polenta round three, let the leftovers naturally harden a little, then shape them into rectangles and pop them in the grill as a side to your next meal. Polenta in this form can also be bought ready-made, and is popular in summer for barbeques, when you don’t want to be standing over a steaming pot for forty minutes.
As you can see, the Italian ancestors did their best to make every last bit of this mixture count. I have even heard that years ago they would mix the crosta stuck to the pan with milk, as a cheap way for a filling and warm breakfast meal…unfortunately, my own attempt resulted in me almost completely ruining my pan, only to have a charcoal tasting lumpy gloop at the end of it, so try this at your own risk.
Luckily, we live in days where many aren’t so desperate for food, meaning there are hundreds of more modern recipes which add fruits and flavours to leftover polenta to result in a much healthier and satisfying breakfast. All it takes is google search!