A Recipe from a Great Restaurant in Florence, My Polenta with Fresh Corn and Chanterelles, Some Thoughts on Heirloom, Stone-Ground Corn, Plus Fried, Grilled and Parmigiana-ed
Many think of polenta as a winter dish. It’s hard to argue with the cozy warmth a bowl of corn porridge affords, especially when served alongside some slow-braised cut of meat. But I like to make polenta in the summertime, too, when fresh corn and seasonal vegetables make polenta a satisfying entrée or side dish.
Two great polentas stand out in my memory. The first is the iconic polenta at Cibreo in Florence, Italy, the domain of legendary chef-provocateur Fabio Picchi. The first time I tasted Picchi’s polenta was a revelation. Rich, sweet, and deeply flavorful, it reminded me of a plate of concentrated fresh corn. I taught ten consecutive summer courses in Florence and went to Cibreo every time. I always ordered the polenta. Picchi serves his polenta on a simple side plate, dimpled to hold a pool of melted butter and topped with grated cheese. I can taste it as I type. I was once asked to write the ultimate polenta recipe for GQ magazine, and I went straight to Picchi. The recipe he shared with me was made with some milk and finely minced fresh herbs. To be honest, I’ve never gotten it to taste exactly like his—more on why that might be below—but it is nevertheless delicious.
RECIPE: Cibreo’s Polenta alle Erbe
Makes 6 to 8 servings
7 cups water
1 cup whole milk
2 cups polenta or yellow cornmeal, preferably stone ground
1 large leaf fresh sage, minced
1-inch stem fresh rosemary, leaves only, minced
1 small clove garlic, grated on a Microplane
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground green or white peppercorns
Pinch of freshly ground nutmeg
1/4 cup unsalted butter, melted
2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
In a large, heavy saucepan (not nonstick) combine the water with the milk and 1 tablespoon of salt. Set over high heat and bring to a boil. Pay attention as it nears the boiling point because the milk has a tendency to boil over. Meanwhile, in a large measuring cup or mixing bowl, combine the polenta with the sage, rosemary, garlic, pepper, and nutmeg. In a steady stream, slowly whisk the polenta mixture into the boiling liquid. It won’t exactly dissolve, rather it will look as though the granules of cornmeal are suspended in the liquid. As soon as this mixture comes back to a boil and begins to thicken—be careful, the molten polenta tends to splatter and it burns—lower the flame as low as it will go. The polenta should be barely simmering.
Stirring only occasionally with a wooden spoon (many Italian cooks say you shouldn’t stir it at all), allow the polenta to cook very slowly for 30 minutes or so. It will stick to the bottom and form a crust, which is desirable. Adjust the seasoning with salt and pepper. Cook for another 15 minutes or so. If the polenta is too thick—it should be custardy—thin it down by stirring in boiling salted water or hot milk.
To serve, spoon the polenta onto warm plates, making a slight indentation with the back of the spoon to hold puddles of the warm melted butter. Sprinkle with the grated cheese.
My second memorable polenta was in rotation at the original Torrisi Italian Specialties on Mulberry St., in Manhattan’s SoHo neighborhood. Their set, prix-fixe menu often included a side dish of polenta so creamy, so flavorful, it tasted like it had just come off the cob. In fact, I later learned they made the polenta in house by drying and grinding fresh corn. Such a treat.
A Polenta Primer
Polenta is the name of both the ground dried corn and the dish that is made with it. But in Italy that wasn’t always the case. Prior to the 19th century, i.e., before widespread consumption of corn from the New World, polenta was the Italian name given to just about any porridge. (Ultimately, the reliance on corn in northern Italian diet led to a scourge of pellagra, which results from a vitamin B3 deficiency, n the 1880s.) You still find gastronomic remnants of pre-corn polenta in polenta saracena, which is made from buckwheat.
I believe the best polenta is made from heirloom corn ground on stone mills. It’s the variety of the corn and the freshness of the meal that determine the flavor of the finished polenta. Failed attempts to recreate certain polentas (see Cibreo, above), I blame on an inability to find the same corn meal. #imho Anson Mills is the source for the best polenta. But last week I bought some polenta from Farmer Ground in Trumansburg, New York, and it was great, too. I’ll note that I’ve had the experience several times of Italian chefs invited to cook for events shunning the variability of the grainy, heirloom meal in favor of the more common, run-of-the mill polenta bremata, typically a uniform, bright yellow, industrial polenta made from kernels that have had the germ removed.
As far as I can tell, there isn’t much difference between ground corn for polenta and corn meal, beside the variety of corn used. I’ve asked experts in Italy and the U.S. on numerous occasions and their answers baffle. Both polenta and corn meal can be more or less coarse. Both can be made with the whole kernel or have the germ removed (which improves storing capacity but diminishes nutrient content and flavor). Both can be deeply flavorful or insipid.
Stone-ground, heirloom corn polenta requires more liquid (5 to 1) and a longer cooking time (about 45 minutes) than other varieties of polenta. It doesn’t always set up as firmly as some of the more industrial varieties, so if you intend to chill, slice, and grill or fry it, you may want to stick to something more consistent. But these little variations are why it is so good and so worth it.
For the liquid, I sometimes just use water, which is most traditional, as polenta is typical of cucina povera, but any combination of water, stock, milk, buttermilk, or what have you works well. Depends what I have around. I don’t ever want anything to detract from the flavor of the corn, so I always dilute my liquids with at least half water, or more. I salt the liquid, bring it to a boil, whisk in the polenta, and keep stirring until it begins to swell and thicken. Then I let it cook over low heat for at least 45 minutes, stirring with a wooden spoon from time to time. A crust will form on the bottom of the pot, which is a good thing.
A nice thing about polenta is it can be made up to several hours in advance and kept on low heat until ready to serve. It will gurgle and sputter from time to time. Just stir it occasionally. If it gets too thick, add some hot water or other liquid to thin it down. At a restaurant I used to work at in Torino, Italy, we made the polenta before the start of service and kept it on the stove for until the end of service, four or five hours later. (Any leftovers were chilled, sliced, and fried for family meal.) If making polenta in advance, I don’t add the finishing garnishes (butter, cheese, fresh corn) until just before I serve it.
Heres’ the recipe for polenta I made the other day with the Finger Lakes corn from Farmers Ground. I stirred in fresh corn and topped it with sauté chanterelles that had been foraged from nearby woods, the inspiration for the polenta in the first place. I had duck stock on hand but you can use any stock you have or none. Buttermilk is a great addition, too.
RECIPE: Summertime Polenta with Fresh Corn and Chanterelles
Makes 3 or 4 servings
For the polenta:
3 cups water
1 cup duck stock
Generous pinch salt
3/4 cup stone-ground polenta
Kernels from 2 ears fresh corn (about 1 ¼ cups)
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
For the chanterelles:
About 1 pound chanterelles, or any mushrooms
Extra-virgin olive oil
1 small garlic clove, minced
Chopped fresh parsley
Freshly ground black pepper
In a medium saucepan, bring the water and stock to boil over high heat. Add a generous pinch of salt. Once boiling, slowly whisk in the polenta in a steady stream, until it is all in the pot, and keep whisking until the grains of the polenta begin to swell and the mixture thickens, 3 or 4 minutes. Turn down the heat to low and simmer, stirring with a wooden spoon regularly, for 45 minutes. If you need to keep the polenta longer, you can keep it on the lowest burner and stir from time to time. If it gets too thick, add some hot water or other liquid to thin it down; it will keep several hours. Don’t add the finishing garnishes until just before you are ready to serve.
In the meantime, with a brush and a small paring knife, clean the dirt off the chanterlees. They are like little sponges so avoid running them under cold water until you are done scraping away the dirt, and then just rinse them quickly and place in colander to drain.
Heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat and add a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the garlic, stir, and as soon as it begins to sizzle, add the mushrooms along with a generous pinch of salt. Stir until the mushrooms begin to wilt and give off some water. You want the liquid to evaporate somewhat. With the pan on high, add a splash of white wine and/or water, and let it come to a rapid boil. Then add a small spoonful of white miso and dissolve it in the liquid on the bottom of the pan. Toss to coat. Add the parsley and season with black pepper. Set aside.
When the polenta is done, turn up the heat to medium, add the fresh corn, butter and cheese, and stir until melted and heated through. Pour the polenta onto a serving platter and top with chanterelles, making sure to scrape every last bit of flavor off the bottom of the pan with a rubber spatula. Serve quickly.
More Polenta Memories
Come to think of it, there were other memorable polentas in my life. There was the giant polenta served on a special occasion at Le Cirque in New York, when with great ceremony they poured cooked cornmeal from the copper pentola in which was made directly onto the table cloth for us to eat.
And then there was the polenta I didn’t actually eat, only heard about. After graduating college, I was a selected with 28 other recent hotel or culinary school graduates to attend an experimental program in Italy designed to teach us about real Italian food. Called ICIF, the Italian Culinary institute for Foreigners, it was during my time there I developed my lifelong love for Italy and Italian cuisine. The students came from all over the U.S. One of them, Lisa, was from Staten Island. Her stereotypical Italian American mamma didn’t want her daughter to go on the long trip to Italy without something to eat, and so she made and brought with her to JFK a pot full of polenta that she wanted Lisa to take. To ITALY! “Ma,” Lisa screamed as she was getting out of the car at the airport. “What am I gonna do with a polent in Italy?” #coalstonewcastle
Here’s What To Do With Any Polent You Don’t Eat
TECHNIQUE: Fried Polenta or Polenta Sticks
Pour any leftover polenta into a loaf pan greased with olive oil and/or lined with plastic film and chill overnight. When firm, unmold the polenta and slice about 1/2-inch thick (a piece of unflavored dental floss makes a good slicing tool). Fry the polenta in butter, olive oil, or a combination until golden brown. If you prefer, you can bread the polenta, dipping the pieces in flour, beaten egg, and bread crumbs, before frying it.
TECHNIQUE: Grilled Polenta
Pour the warm polenta into a loaf pan greased with olive oil or lined with plastic film and chill overnight. When firm, unmold the polenta and slice about 1/2-inch thick (a piece of unflavored dental floss makes a good slicing tool).To grill, brush the polenta slices with olive oil and set on a hot grill or grill pan. When the polenta is nicely marked with grill marks, flip and grill the second side until the polenta is heated through.
TECHNIQUE: Polenta Parmigiana
Using either fried or grilled pieces of polenta you can make a delicious polenta parmigiana. Arrange the slices of polenta on a baking sheet. Spoon tomato sauce over the polenta and top with shredded mozzarella and grated Parmigiano-Reggiano. Bake in a 400°F. oven until the cheese is melted and browned and the sauce is bubbly, 20 to 25 minutes.