Polenta’s been in the food news recently. Mark Bittman’s 'Taking the Fear out of Polenta” showed up on February 12. A few days later, Russ Parsons’ ‘Easy, Fast Polenta that doesn’t Skimp on Flavor'’ was on the L.A. Times site. I’m happy that so many readers will be keeping warm with polenta dinners.
Parson’s column grabbed me for two reasons. The first was nostalgia. He mentions a Cesare Pavese book, The Moon and the Bonfires, about a Piemontese man returning to Italy after living in California for twenty years. The book’s been sitting on my shelf for a year or so—it’s time to take it down.
Polenta NostalgiaMy grandfather came from Chiomonte, a small village in Piemonte, a part of Italy that likes its polenta. Perhaps because of this we often ate polenta while I was young (no one else I knew had polenta for dinner). My mother cooked it in a battered copper pot, stirring until the polenta pulled away from the sides, leaving a papery film behind, which always fascinated me.
We bought bags of Golden Pheasant polenta, with the picture of a red and yellow pheasant lifting off from a field. It was good, local, (from San Francisco), and probably one of the only ways to get polenta then. We didn’t have bulk aisles in many grocery stores, or today’s wide availability of products like those from Bob’s Red Mill, or imports from Mulino Marino and Moretti (no connection to Moretti beer, which I have a soft spot for, because the man on the bottle looks like my other—non-Italian—grandfather).
The second reason Parsons polenta article spoke to me? Because he wrote about baking it in the oven, my favorite way to cook polenta.
When polenta’s popularity began to grow here, so did people’s interest in an ‘easier’ cooking method. Tubes of cooked polenta showed up in markets. An Italian relative even showed us her ‘easy’ method of cooking polenta in the microwave (it was kind of lumpy and required nearly as much attention as the stove-top method).
[A note on the question of ease in making stove-top polenta: it was never difficult—it took time, but no particular skill]
Baking PolentaAbout ten years ago, a friend gave me Paula Wolfert’s book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens , and I found a new-to-me method of cooking polenta. The surprise was that the recipe had been right on the Golden Pheasant polenta bag all along.
The method isn’t quick to the table; it takes 1-1/2 hours to bake enough for 6 people. But it only takes about five minutes of active time: four to combine the ingredients, and one to stir the polenta ten minutes before it’s finished. And I like the subtle toasted flavor the oven-baking imparts to the polenta.
Oven-baked polenta is a great way to get dinner on the table fast—you can use the spare time to make sauces and a salad. Or read with your kid. Or have a drink with your sweetheart. Or fold laundry and go through the mail.
Polenta Serving IdeasIf you’re really in a rush, skip the sauce. Pick up a nice piece of Taleggio (or Fontina) cheese at the store. While the polenta bakes, slowly caramelize some onions (they don’t need much attention either) and make a salad. Once the polenta is done, lay cheese slices on top of the polenta along with the onions. This is the kind of dinner that fills you in every way.
Follow this link for the Oven-Baked Polenta Recipe.