The reason I am writing about polenta is because it is such a versatile ingredient and I get the impression that home cooks do not call upon it often enough when caught in the grip of solving a culinary conundrum. First of all, polenta is very cheap and available all year round. Second, it keeps forever and you should always store some in your pantry. Third, it is what I call a “food that contains” – one can associate it with an infinite list of other foods or ingredients, including whatever is at hand or even leftovers.
I came to a conclusion not too long ago that foods generally fall into two large categories: foods that contain and foods that explain.
An apple can be eaten on its own just as it is. It will “explain” its taste to your palate as you eat it. It needs nothing else.
Likewise, a steak can be eaten on its own (true, it needs to be cooked, and a pinch of salt will bring out its flavour even more, but basically a steak is a steak is a steak. And a steak tartare doesn’t even need cooking) …
Nuts … all nuts “explain” their flavours to us as we chew them.
I would thus venture to conclude that most vegetables, all meats, all fish, all nuts and all fruits, as well as eggs and milk (thus cheese too) are “foods that explain” and show their rugged individuality and independence. With these foods, it’s all about “me, me, me”.
Foods that “contain”, on the other hand, are foods that abhor isolation and just aren’t very good eaten on their own. This is the category that encompasses: bread, pasta, rice, potatoes and root vegetables, polenta, flour and, perhaps surprisingly, cereals and pulses too. You try eating uncooked lentils. Or chickpeas. Or cannellini beans. Mmmm? Exactly. Not very nice.
For all that they are cheap, vegetarian-friendly and rich in nutrients, not to mention delicious, foods that contain are the product of agriculture (as opposed to hunting and gathering) and thus high maintenance in existential terms — they are needy, they crave companionship and intimate togetherness. With them, it’s all about “us, us, us”.
Actually, when it comes to polenta, it might have been more of a case of “me, me, me” with those poor peasants in the north/north east of Italy … who could only afford to add some garlic or a teensy bit of oil to their polenta once it was cooked (look up polenta on google … there is so much history associated with it). Polenta was definitely poor people’s staple food.
So was caviar before the Czars discovered it by chance, ha!
Anyway, let’s get on with the recipe.
I was asked to come up with a list of ideas for Italian dishes/recipes for an Open Day at a showroom in Boston recently by my two friends and partners.
Together, we wanted to pair some cheeses with jams and honey, present a selection of olive oils for a tasting, and offer some yummy morsels to our guests in such a way as to put our wares (we deal in Italian ceramics) to best advantage. All of it had to be Italian, all of it had to be easy to eat standing up, and delicious … of course.
I know I came up with the idea of making a polenta dish (because I actually brought the quick-cooking polenta over with me from Italy) but it was my Canadian friend (the one who subjects her some of her dinner guests to risotto-making) who came up with the idea of using a truffle to make the polenta really interesting.
We were in a gorgeous gastronomic port of call named “Formaggio Kitchen” in one of its two locations in Boston (do go there those of you who live there … the array of foods is amazing and the staff very friendly and knowledgeable) and suddenly, out of the blue, we were presented with a real, live truffle. Noblesse oblige, my Canadian friend said and promptly bought it for the polenta dish.
I have to admit that this polenta dish tasted slightly better when it was still hot but it was certainly more than ‘good enough’ the following day served at room temperature. Try it – it’s ever so posh!
Here is the polenta packet with the magic words: “cuoce in pochi minute” which means “takes only a few minutes to cook”. Purists wouldn’t use this kind of polenta but there is nothing wrong with it so far as I’m concerned. Basically we just followed the cooking instructions but added extra ingredients to make our very own dish.
We used two of these packets for a total amount of 750g of polenta flour.
We filled a pot with 1.5 lt of milk and 1.5 lt of water, brought it to boiling, added a spoonful of coarse sea salt and poured in the polenta flour using a whisk to avoid clumsy lumps forming. After about two minutes, I got rid of the whisk and used a wooden spoon instead, stirring until the polenta was cooked.
I then added 5 spoonful’s of grated parmesan cheese and 5 beaten eggs and incorporated these into the hot polenta meal/mush, stirring all the while. We poured a little bit of truffle scented oil and then half a freshly grated truffle into the works. Tasted it again, added a little more salt, freshly milled pepper and … mmm … bob’s your uncle, it was great.
We poured the still runny polenta into a baking tray, so that it was about 1 inch thick and left it to cool and set. The next day we cut it up into bite size pieces and served it on a beautiful ceramic platter.