As winter knocks on our door, we inevitably turn to our favourite comfort foods to keep us warm – at least on the inside. My recent article on polenta in the Sydney Morning Herald’s SPECTRUM sparked more than 50 emails wanting more information on this Italian staple.
When we opened our first restaurant in 1983, which we called The Restaurant for lack of a real name, I wanted the menu to include many of the dishes that my mother cooked for us. After all, it was her and my grandmother’s food that inspired me to open a restaurant in the first place.
My family comes from the north of Italy where polenta has traditionally been a staple. Back then this maize or cornmeal gruel was rarely seen on Sydney restaurant menus. I remember that my mother was hesitant about offering polenta because traditionally it has been associated with poverty and famine. How times change!
Today polenta enjoys a much higher status and specialist flours are well worth seeking out. My view on “instant polenta” is that, while convenient, for supreme flavour and texture there’s no beating traditional flours.
White Polenta: Made from white maize grown in the Veneto, it is delicately flavoured and finely textured. Good with fish and shellfish ragout.
Polenta di Storo: From an old variety of maize called Marano grown around the town of Storo in the region of Trentino-Alto Adige. Old gold in colour, coarsely textured and creamy, rich flavour.
Polenta Taragna: Popular in the mountainous Valtellina area of northern Lombardy, it is made with coarse-ground buckwheat. Big, rich taste goes well with parmesan, gruyere or other mature cheese stirred through. Excellent with braised sausages.
Ottofile di Langa: This bright yellow maize takes its name from the 8 rows of kernels on each cob. It’s an old variety grown in the Langa area of Piedmont. Comes as coarse or fine milled and its sweet flavour is excellent in a range of dishes.
Tips – where to get specialist polenta flour…
Because polenta is made from corn, it is gluten free. The buckwheat that goes into making polenta taragna is also gluten free. So polenta generally is excellent for those who are gluten intolerant. The flours are available by mail order from Lario, who is the importer.
Polenta with braised broccolini, eggplant and capers (serves 6 as a first course)
2 bunches broccolini, well washed
1 large eggplant
3 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
1 medium onion, finely diced
2 cloves garlic, minced
100g ripe tomatoes, peeled, seeded and chopped
1 tbsp capers, well rinsed if they’re salted
1 tbsp red wine vinegar
Salt and pepper
Polenta as per following recipe:
Use good quality polenta. To get really good results polenta must be cooked long and slow. To achieve the very low heat I use a simmer mat between the heat source and my pot.
1 litre water
2 pinches salt
200g polenta meal
Bring water and salt to a rolling boil and whisk in polenta meal in a gradual fine stream. Once it is all in let the polenta come to the boil. It will begin to thicken. Place lid on saucepan and turn heat to lowest (a simmer mat helps). Keep cooking slowly for 60-90 minutes. Stir with a wooden spoon every 20 minutes. Leftover polenta can be stored, refrigerated, in a container. Cut into pieces and fry in olive oil or butter and serve with mushrooms or braised meat.
Wine: Pinot Bianco or aged Hunter Semillon