Monday, April 28, 2008

Traditional Polenta in the Paiolo

Even in a contemporary world, traditions are important.
And many home chefs conjure up memories of their heritage by preparing traditional dishes using long and time honoured methods. This holds true whether you are making a pie from scratch or a minestrone soup.

Today I bring you Carlo Middione's traditional polenta.

Poletna Sulla Tavola
8 cups water
2 teaspoons salt
2 cupts polenta (real Italian polenta, no substitutions! Try what we use "Farina di Granoturco Bramata")

Bring the water in the paiolo (an unlined copper pot) to a brisk boil and add the salt. In a fine but steady stream, drizzle in the dry polenta with one hand and stir with the other hand using a long wooden polenta spoon. Stir continuously in a clockwise motion, and lower the heat slightly if the water boils too high.

When the polenta is in the water, lower the heat to a gentle simmer and let your mind wander a bit! "Be sure you don't have anything important to do for 30 minutes," Carlo asserts. "Just stand there a stir the whole time!"

When stirring polenta, Carlo likes to daydream about his Sicilian heritage. He imagines his grandmother teaching him to stir in a clockwise motion to preserve the texture of the grain. He learns an important lesson: Lumpy polenta is impossible to fix!

The polenta is done when it pulls away from the sides of the pan. Be sure it is not undercooked or it will impart a bitter flavour. Dump the entire panful onto a clean unfinished wooden table or a smooth wooden board -- oak and birch are good candidates -- at least 18 inches square. You can let the polenta cool for later frying and making a crouton. Or you can add favourite toppings or ingredients used by your grandparents.

Carlo sometimes adds meat juices or tomatao sauces with grated cheeses and serves the polenta right from the wooden board. "In Abruzzi, the villagers gather around the board and eat the whole thing community style," Carlo says.

In Italy, everybody has a polenta recipe. Some families like to stir in grated mozzarella, fontina or parmesan while cooking polenta, cheeses that are a perfect compliment for robust meals like meat. In coastal areas, you often find plain polenta because it goes well with fish and lighter fare. Still other locations prefer a hearty polenta using milk or a broth of veal, chicken or beef.

With polenta, the options are virtually limitless and I will pass on a few more of Carlo's favourite polenta ideas.

In the meantime, be sure you have a sturdy polenta spoon. Carlo offers a hand carved, signature polenta spoon through You can also find wooden polenta spoons in many quality retail outlets. Carlo also reminds me to use only authentic Italian polenta and avoid common corn meal found in most markets.


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