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Polenta perfect for cold weather

Polenta and braised chickenCold weather makes me want comfort food.

One of my favorite foods, warming, soothing and satisfying, is polenta.

Today I was wondering what I could cook for dinner that would be wonderful as well as hearty and healthy.  I also wanted a relatively quick meal since my afternoon was busy with work and errands.

Polenta seemed the perfect choice.

A Northern Italian peasant food, polenta reminds me of a Southern staple from my childhood, grits. I loved grits, so polenta with its similar creamy-grainy texture quickly became a favorite.

Ancient origins

The grain dish that would become known as polenta was made from wild grains and later from primitive wheat, faro, millet, spelt or chickpeas.The ground grain was mixed with water to form a paste and then was cooked on a hot stone. This simple meal may have pre-dated leavened bread.

Polenta, or pulmentum as it was known, was the simple and filling fare of the Roman Legions as well as the poor. The Saracens introduced buckwheat to Italy and grano saraceno, with its distinctive flavor, is still popular in Tuscany,

In the 15th or 16th century, maize was brought to Northern Italy from the New World and landlords exploited the new crop forever influencing Italian cuisine.

Making polenta is far easier than it would appear. Traditionally, the dish was made with a round bottom copper pot called Paiolo and required constant stirring and attention. But, soft polenta, achieved with a 3 to 1 ratio of water to polenta, can be made with in a saucepan with occasional stirring with good results.

How to serve polenta

Served simply with grated cheese, polenta can be either a main meal or a side dish.  We enjoy simple braised meats and vegetables with polenta or for meatless meals, we top polenta with sauteed mixed mushrooms. If there are any leftovers, I put them in a rectangular container to mold for later uniform slicing. Sliced polenta is tasty grilled and makes a great side for fish.

Basic polenta recipe

This basic recipe is easy to prepare. For more flavorful polenta, substitute one cup of water for vegetable or chicken stock.


Ingredients

1 cup polenta

3 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Stirring constantly, pour in polenta steadily to prevent lumps..While polenta thickens, continue to stir.  Soft polenta is ready when water is absorbed and simmering produces thick bubbles on the surface. The consistency should be loose rather than stiff. Finish by stirring in the butter. Cooking time ranges from 20 to 50 minutes.  Serve immediately in shallow bowls.


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