For Italians, it always seems both pasta and pizza are the cornerstones of what makes Italian food “Italian”. However, there is a staple food of Northern Italy that does not get the recognition, but certainly makes up the third aspect of the Italian food trinity: Versatile and satisfying POLENTA.
POLENTA used to be mainly the food of the peasant and just as poor Southern Italians worked the fields with their bellies full of pasta, Northern Italians subsisted on little more than polenta for centuries.
Polenta started out as one of the earliest and simplest foods made from grain. Made from wild grains and later from primitive wheat, faro (a popular Italian grain), millet, spelt or chickpeas, the grain was mixed with water to form a paste that was then cooked on a hot stone. In this way, early polenta may have pre-dated leavened bread, since yeasts were often hard to come by and milling techniques were not yet refined.
For the next few centuries, nothing changed in the history of polenta. POLENTA started to improve though with the introduction of buckwheat by the Saracens. It added a widely loved and distinctive flavor to polenta. This highly nutritious grain is still widely popular in Tuscany and goes by the name “grano saraceno”.
In the 15th and 16th century, buckwheat was widely replcaed by a new crop that came from the New World- MAIZE, also known as CORN, which turned the polenta’s greyish color into a yellow or white color (Veneto’s famous white polenta).
This new form of polenta was abundant, but seriously lacking in nutrients compared to earlier forms of the dish.
However cornmeal polenta is very tasty and filling, and therefore continued to be a staple long after conditions improved for the poor.
Whether baked, grilled, fried, or served creamy, polenta is a delicious gluten-free addition to your menu. Traditionally, polenta is a winter food, but it makes great summer eating as a rich base for simply cooked vegetables such as fried mushrooms, steamed asparagus or grilled zucchini.
The secret to great polenta is to use the right ratio of liquid to cornmeal. Traditionally, it is made in a round bottom copper pot known as a Paiolo and a long wooden spoon known as a Tarello.
The process to make a soft polenta involves a 3 to 1 ratio of water to polenta and requires constant stirring for up to 50 minutes. In today’s kitchen, the process doesn’t take that long but still needs some attention and some stirring.
Instead of a savory polenta recipe, I’ll share with you today a sweet, delicious and VERY easy recipe. This dish makes can be prepared in advance and will delight guests with a sweet elegant ending to a great meal:
- 1/2 cup polenta
- 2 tbsp maple syrup
- 1 banana, cut in slices
- 1/2 can (200ml) light coconut milk
- 4 ramekins
- In a small pot, combine syrup and milk and bring to a gentle boil. Stir in the polenta, remove pot from the stove and stir for three minutes.
- Divide the polenta among the ramekins. gently press a few banana slices into the polenta.
- Set the upper and lower heat in the oven to 375F (180C). Gratinate the polenta for 10 minutes. Remove from the oven and let cool off doe a few minutes.
- Serve with a small amount of maple syrup on top.