by Michele Anna Jordan
Call it whatever you like—polenta, mush, cornmeal, mamaliga, las pous—polenta is the ultimate comfort food. Polenta can be a cook's best friend—or certainly one of them. It can be served right from the stove with butter and cheese or poured onto a board and cut with a wire, as it was so long ago. It can be set up in a mold—plain or fancy—later to be sliced and fried, broiled, or grilled and crowned with a savory sauce. A pot of hot bubbling polenta is the culinary equivalent of an artist's canvas, waiting for a cook to contribute his or her magic.
In the last decade, polenta has become astonishingly popular in America, though it always has been around in one form or another. But now, it transcends its humble origins as mush, suppawn, or hasty pudding. It is featured in everything from pizza crust to shortcake, paired with such luxurious ingredients as caviar and lobster. It is on the menus of the best restaurants, new cookbooks pay homage to it, recipes for it appear regularly in virtually every food publication in the country. At the Clinton White House, at a State Dinner honoring Oscar Scalfaro, president of Italy, polenta was seasoned with fresh basil and served with portobello mushrooms. In the spring of 1996, an Internet search revealed over 2,000 references to polenta.
This is not to say polenta has become a pantry staple in our home kitchens. For the most part, home cooks still find it intimidating. Just consider the plastic tubes and blocks of prepared polenta available in supermarkets and the boxes of instant polenta that line the shelves. The mystique of polenta, the image of that paiolo and the constant stirring, stirring, stirring it demanded, makes a bowl of fragrant steamy polenta seem an illusive, luxurious pleasure. How sad and how untrue. with the consistent heat provided by modern cookstoves and with the perfection of modern cooking equipment, it is extremely easy to make a bowl of polenta a weekly or even a daily reality, should you be so inclined. If one insists on the traditional technique, there is even a motorized paiolo to do the stirring for you.
This image of constant stirring is largely a romantic one. The technique works, certainly, and there are times when it is appropriate, such as when preparing an enormous pot of polenta for several dozen guests . Then, nearly constant stirring is necessary to cook the polenta evenly, to move the cornmeal from the bottom to the top of the pot, from the sides of the pot to the middle, continually circulating the meal to insure that the bottom does not burn while the top languishes undone. But how often do you cook polenta for a hundred, or even twenty, people? Besides, it is the tradition at such gatherings for each of the revelers to take a turn at the stick. Polenta for two, polenta for four, polenta for six: it is very simple indeed.
Yet the baton, the paddle, the thick wooden spoon should not be banished to the museum of culinary relics. The slow stirring of polenta has another important function: it relieves stress and lightens depression. There are times when we all long to retreat from the world, from its demands and pace, however briefly. You simply can't beat the soothing tonic of stirring a fragrant pot of bubbling cornmeal. Suddenly, the world is reduced to a small sphere of warmth, aroma, and hypnotic motion; cares drift away on a fragrant cloud of steam and you find yourself relaxing in spite of your troubles. And unlike certain other escapes—television, a martini or two, Prozac—you return to the world with a tangible, albeit humble, accomplishment: a pot of perfectly cooked polenta. This is the time to make two, three, four times the amount you need for one meal: pour what you don't eat immediately into tart shells, fancy molds, and baking sheets for use over the next several days. Wrapped tightly in plastic, your polenta will take you through the week.
However you get your polenta to the table, to do so links you with traditions that stretch back not mere decades or centuries but millennia, before a single stalk of corn had flowered in European soil.
by Michele Anna Jordan
Copyright © 1997 Michele Anna Jordan.
Reprinted by permission.
Created 1997. Modified August 2007
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