Polenta - A Presidential Prerogative
Of the 44 men who have been President of the United States, nine (or almost a quarter) have listed some kind of corn as one of their favorite foods. For Grant it was hominy grits, for Coolidge it was cornmeal biscuits, and for both Adamses it was just plain corn. (We don't count Grover Cleveland, who loved corned beef.) Anything so Presidentially favored must be quintessentially American.
And so it is, except when it's quintessentially Italian. To turn good old American cornmeal into fashionable Italian polenta, simply bring 4 cups of water with a teaspoon of salt to a boil. Turn down the heat to a simmer, and add a cup of cornmeal, stirring, in a steady stream.
For soft polenta: Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook, stirring often, for 15 minutes, until creamy and thick. If mixture becomes too thick, you can add a little more water. Remove from the stove and add your seasonings, serve immediately.
For thick polenta: Follow the directions above, but continue cooking until the polenta becomes so a thick that a spoon almost stands up in it. Season the mixture and place in a lightly greased baking dish. Allow to cool or refrigerate until ready to use. You can then cut the polenta into pieces and use it for grilling, baking, frying or broiling.
But that's just the beginning.
Polenta has a neutral, unobtrusive corn taste that makes it a perfect vehicle for other flavors.
- Make basic polenta, pour it into a pan and chill, cut into squares and pan fry or broil it for a crispy crust.
- Use polenta as a crust for a savory pie.
- Roast a bulb of garlic and add it to the polenta just as it begins to firm up. Then, just before it's finished, stir in some baby spinach.
- Construct a 3-layer casserole with a layer of polenta on the bottom, some kind of sauteed vegetables and/or meats in the middle, and another polenta layer on top. Then bake it 30-40 minutes in a 350 degree F oven.
- Sauté some scallions, shallots, or onion (and maybe some sage or basil) in the pot before you add the water and cornmeal.
- For an appetizer, top polenta squares with sun-dried (or fresh) tomatoes or chopped olives.
- Just when the polenta is done, stir in some cheese - try Parmesan or Gorgonzola.
And who knows, if you eat enough polenta, you might grow up to be President.
Sardinian Polenta (Polenta alla Sarda)
Polenta alla Sarda is ideally made with pecorino sardo, Sardinian sheep's milk cheese. However, if you cannot find pecorino sardo, you can substitute Romano.
3 cups soft polenta
3 Tbsp butter
1/4 cup olive oil
1/2 cup onion, minced
6 oz. pancetta, thinly sliced
6 oz. salami or crumbled sausage
8 tomatoes, peeled, seeded and diced
1 Tbsp parsley, finely chopped
1 Tbsp basil or sage, finely chopped
6 oz. pecorino sardo, grated
1. In a large, deep skillet heat the butter and olive oil. Sautee the onions for 2-3 minutes then add the pancetta and salami. Continue cooking for another couple of minutes then add the tomatoes and fresh herbs. Simmer for 15-20 minutes.
2. In the meatime, prepare a soft polenta in a large pot. As soon as the polenta is cooked, stir in the tomato mixture and grated cheese. Serve immediately.
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