In previous posts, we talked about Cucina Povera, the cuisine of the poor, now becoming “fashionable” in high-end restaurants. This is the case also for polenta – one of the simplest dishes ever conceived.Check out the latest episode of Thoughts on the Table, the podcast on food and food culture. Also available on iTunes and Google Play Music.
Now traditionally made with cornmeal, different types of polenta have been feeding the masses since Roman times, well before the discovery of the Americas and the subsequent introduction of corn into Europe. Earlier polentas were made with millet, rye, spelt, barley, chickpeas, chestnuts or wheat flours.
|Polenta cooker at a town fair.|
In Italy, polenta is a relatively common accompaniment to stews, braised dishes and fried fish, often as an alternative to bread. In some parts of northern Italy, polenta becomes a more involved dish, thanks to the use of different grains and to the addition of cheeses, milk, butter. This recipe describes one of the most renowned polenta spin-offs: Polenta Taragna.
Polenta Taragna is typical of Valtellina as well as of the valleys of Bergamo and Brescia. Its most characteristic trait is its dark color, due to the use of buckwheat flour (mixed with cornmeal). Polenta Taragna can also be recognized from other polenta-based dishes for containing substantial amounts of butter and cheese, mixed in right before the dish is served. The cheeses used in this preparation vary from region to region, but they’re commonly semi-fat, medium-ripened cow-milk cheeses (e.g.: Valtellina Casera, Bitto, Branzi, or Fontina). Polenta Taragna is served as a main course, or to accompany cold cuts and Italian pickles.
- 1 liter of water
- 120 g buckwheat flour
- 80 g cornmeal (fig. a)
- 75 g unsalted butter, cubed (fig. b)
- 250 g semi-fat cheese, cubed (e.g.: Fontina) (fig. c)
- ½ teaspoon salt
- Bring the water to a boil in the traditional copper cauldron or in a heavy-bottomed, stainless steel saucepan.
- Slowly add the flours, while stirring constantly, until a lump-free mixture is obtained (figs. 1, 2, 3).
- Cook at medium-low heat for 50-60 minutes, stirring frequently to prevent the mix from sticking to the pot.
- When the polenta is almost ready, add the butter and allow it to melt (fig. 4).
- Finally, turn off the heat and add the cheese (fig. 5).
- Keep stirring until the cheese has partially melted (fig. 6).
- Serve in earthenware or ceramic bowls, or on a cutting board if used as a side.