Italian polenta is very similar to American cornmeal mush. In fact, when polenta meal isn't available, stone-ground yellow cornmeal, available in many health food stores, may be substituted.
But polenta wasn't always made from corn. Before corn was introduced from the Americas, polenta was made from barley (in Latin, "polenta" meant simply "barley flour"), millet or even ground chestnuts.
Traditionally, polenta is cooked in a round-bottomed copper pan, or "paiolo." But you can get good results using a heavy saucepan.
Polenta meal is slowly added to boiling water in a fine stream (Step 1) while being stirred with a wooden spoon to prevent it from becoming lumpy. The mixture is then stirred constantly as it cooks over a low heat for about an hour. Polenta that hasn't been properly cooked tends to taste bitter.
Additional boiling water, a spoonful at a time, may be added if the mixture becomes too thick to stir. Dissolve any lumps by pressing them against the side of the pot with the spoon.
The polenta is finished when it becomes very thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan (Step 2). Giuliano Bugialli, author of "The Fine Art of Italian Cooking," recommends leaving it over the heat an additional three minutes without stirring. During this period, shake the pan a little, so steam forms under the polenta. This helps release the polenta from the pan.
There is an alternative method of cooking polenta that eliminates the long stirring. Once the mixture begins to thicken, it may be placed in a larger pan of simmering water and cooked 45 minutes with only an occasional stirring.
To serve the polenta, rinse an 18-inch-diameter wooden board with cold water. Push the polenta from the pan onto the board (Step 3), then spread it into a circular mound with a spatula.
Use kitchen twine to cut the polenta into slices or wedges. Slide the twine under, then draw it up through the polenta (Step 4).
The simplest type of polenta is presented piping hot, topped with butter and grated Parmesan. Other Italian cheeses may be substituted.
Polenta is often served with meat or mushroom sauces, or as an accompaniment to stews. It may be cooled until firm, then sliced and fried or layered with other ingredients. Check books on Northern Italian cooking for recipes.
Makes about 6 servings.
6 cups water, about
2 teaspoons salt, about
2 cups polenta meal or coarse yellow cornmeal
Bring 6 cups water to boil in 4-quart saucepan. Add salt to taste. Slowly add polenta meal in fine stream, stirring simultaneously with wooden spoon.
Continue to cook over low heat, stirring mixture constantly, about 1 hour. Additional boiling water, 1 tablespoon at time, may be added if mixture becomes too thick to stir.
Cook 3 additional minutes without stirring, shaking pot slightly so steam forms under polenta. Pour polenta onto wooden surface -- about 18 inches in diameter -- that has been rinsed with cold water.
Use spatula to spread polenta into circular mound. Slice or cut into wedges by sliding piece of kitchen twine underneath, then drawing up through polenta.
Each serving contains about: 168 calories; 787 milligrams sodium; 0 milligrams cholesterol; 1 gram fat; 36 grams carbohydrate; 4 grams protein; 0.3 grams fiber; 4 percent calories from fat.