Food & Drink: Go with the grain to soak up flavour

There are lots of things you can do with polenta. But unless you're aware of its high slime content, the one thing you're guaranteed is problems.

Cold, untreated, overcooked, stodgy, it can be like sticky bits of jelly that adhere to the sides of a bowl. I've had it served to me that way in restaurants recently, and the chefs should have been shot. Doesn't polenta have a hard enough time without sabotage?

Increasingly, it is served (like couscous) as an alternative to potatoes, rice or pasta: for its filling capacity, and because it absorbs flavour and rich sauces in an individual way. As you might expect, since it is part of nouveau chic, polenta now comes in an 'instant' form. This is simply polenta (or cornmeal) ground extra fine, so that it takes no time at all to cook - which is a contradiction in terms, for polenta is a 'pudding' (in the old sense of the word, food boiled or steamed to a semi-solid consistency) and as such requires time for whatever taste is added to blend in. Instant polenta has not got that time or that capacity for absorption; further, it has none of the texture of real polenta.

Like most grain dishes, polenta is of mysterious but homely origin. It is poor man's food, filling and cheap, and superbly adapted to a family table. In Tuscany it is known as polenda, and is as often made of barley as maize. I always think of it as a Piedmontese dish, primarily because it blends so well with the great, hearty winter dishes for which Piedmont is famous - especially its Barolo beef, the world's richest daube, for which the beef is simmered for three days in an apparently unending supply of rich, dark wine. This is a dish which, without polenta, would have you leave a restaurant unable to drive yourself home.

It is of the essence of a good polenta that the corn (or barley) meal be coarse-ground - although excellent, porridge-like soups can be made from finer-ground grain. These soups, hugely rich in butter or cheese or both (1/2 lb of each per four persons), are about as filling and fattening as a true risotto, and therefore out of keeping with both season and fashion. The coarse-ground variety, however, is sturdier, harder, and much more adaptable.

Making a polenta is no easy task. It requires energy, consistency and attention. But it is very simple, whichever kind you try. The proportion of water (or stock) to meal is approximately one pint per 100 grams, and the great secret of cooking polenta properly is to introduce the polenta into the liquid very slowly, through your clenched hand, so that it does not form lumps. Your liquid should be simmering, not boiling; and as you add the polenta, you should stir constantly for at least the first 10 minutes. The whole process takes some 40 minutes, and the polenta is ready when it can be rolled off the side of your pot. When it is done, polenta is traditionally turned out on to a large napkin or dish-cloth, to absorb any excess liquid.

In its simplest form, polenta is an accompaniment to any strong-flavoured dish that produces considerable juice or which has been cooked in a sauce. Polenta excels with game (it is an ideal accompaniment to jugged hare), but is equally good as a delicate accompaniment to a rich chicken stew or a brisket of beef.

But the main virtue of polenta is that it's like having extra bread in the house; and unlike bread, it will last and last, which means that it is equally good and useful in summer cooking. One batch can last a week. Polenta will solidify once cooked, and is easily sliced. One of the most delicious of all Italian first courses, and a splendid alternative to the ubiquitous pasta, is grilled or fried polenta. In the former the polenta is sliced finger-thick, brushed generously with olive oil and cooked under a grill until a golden crust forms; in the latter, the slices are fried in oil or butter. Both of these forms are very traditional accompaniments for fish dishes as well as meats. Spread with anchovies, coated with mushrooms or a sharp, spicy tomato paste, Polenta alla griglia (also easily made on a garden barbecue) is an easier equivalent to the bruschetta.

Very thin slices of polenta, layered between the tomatoes and the buffalo mozzarella of a caprese, give that basil-laden dish much needed variety and texture. Chopped into crouton sizes and refried, polenta is also excellent in salads.

If I wanted to make polenta on a summer evening for guests, I would make the famous Lucchese polenta di Neccio, which substitutes chestnut for maize. This is a truly remarkably perfumed and delicious dish. To serve six, you need 10oz of ground chestnut flour, and a little over a litre of water or stock (the stock should not have too pronounced a taste).

The polenta is made in the usual way, but served very hot (warm your serving dish]). The centre of the polenta is lightly hollowed and sprinkled with three tablespoons of the best olive oil you have and about 100 grams of grated pecorino or parmesan cheese. With spicy, fat sausages or fried pancetta added to the mix, this is simple, tasty and perfectly suited for eating outdoors as the evening chill rises from the ground.

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