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.

Life and Style
ebookNow available in paperback
Life and Style
techPatent specifies 'anthropomorphic device' to control media devices
The PM proposed 'commonsense restrictions' on migrant benefits
voicesAndrew Grice: Prime Minister can talk 'one nation Conservatism' but putting it into action will be tougher
Ireland will not find out whether gay couples have won the right to marry until Saturday afternoon
Kim Jong-un's brother Kim Jong-chol
Manchester city skyline as seen from Oldham above the streets of terraced houses in North West England on 7 April 2015.
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Food & Drink

    Guru Careers: Events Coordinator / Junior Events Planner

    £24K + Excellent Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking an Events Coordinator ...

    Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: Chief Executive Officer

    Salary 42,000: Royal Yachting Association Cymru Wales: The CEO is responsible ...

    Guru Careers: Marketing Manager / Marketing Communications Manager

    £35-40k (DOE) + Benefits: Guru Careers: We are seeking a Marketing Communicati...

    Ashdown Group: Technical IT Manager - North London - Growing business

    £40000 - £50000 per annum: Ashdown Group: A growing business that has been ope...

    Day In a Page

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study: One British academic's summer of hell in Magaluf

    Sun, sex and an anthropological study

    One academic’s summer of hell in Magaluf
    From Shakespeare to Rising Damp... to Vicious

    Frances de la Tour's 50-year triumph

    'Rising Damp' brought De la Tour such recognition that she could be forgiven if she'd never been able to move on. But at 70, she continues to flourish - and to beguile
    'That Whitsun, I was late getting away...'

    Ian McMillan on the Whitsun Weddings

    This weekend is Whitsun, and while the festival may no longer resonate, Larkin's best-loved poem, lives on - along with the train journey at the heart of it
    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath in a new light

    Songs from the bell jar

    Kathryn Williams explores the works and influences of Sylvia Plath
    How one man's day in high heels showed him that Cannes must change its 'no flats' policy

    One man's day in high heels

    ...showed him that Cannes must change its 'flats' policy
    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Is a quiet crusade to reform executive pay bearing fruit?

    Dominic Rossi of Fidelity says his pressure on business to control rewards is working. But why aren’t other fund managers helping?
    The King David Hotel gives precious work to Palestinians - unless peace talks are on

    King David Hotel: Palestinians not included

    The King David is special to Jerusalem. Nick Kochan checked in and discovered it has some special arrangements, too
    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years

    End of the Aussie brain drain

    More people moving from Australia to New Zealand than in the other direction for first time in 24 years
    Meditation is touted as a cure for mental instability but can it actually be bad for you?

    Can meditation be bad for you?

    Researching a mass murder, Dr Miguel Farias discovered that, far from bringing inner peace, meditation can leave devotees in pieces
    Eurovision 2015: Australians will be cheering on their first-ever entrant this Saturday

    Australia's first-ever Eurovision entrant

    Australia, a nation of kitsch-worshippers, has always loved the Eurovision Song Contest. Maggie Alderson says it'll fit in fine
    Letterman's final Late Show: Laughter, but no tears, as David takes his bow after 33 years

    Laughter, but no tears, as Letterman takes his bow after 33 years

    Veteran talkshow host steps down to plaudits from four presidents
    Ivor Novello Awards 2015: Hozier wins with anti-Catholic song 'Take Me To Church' as John Whittingdale leads praise for Black Sabbath

    Hozier's 'blasphemous' song takes Novello award

    Singer joins Ed Sheeran and Clean Bandit in celebration of the best in British and Irish music
    Tequila gold rush: The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product

    Join the tequila gold rush

    The spirit has gone from a cheap shot to a multi-billion pound product
    12 best statement wallpapers

    12 best statement wallpapers

    Make an impact and transform a room with a conversation-starting pattern
    Paul Scholes column: Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?

    Paul Scholes column

    Does David De Gea really want to leave Manchester United to fight it out for the No 1 spot at Real Madrid?