Polenta is a dish made from boiled cornmeal. The word "polenta" is borrowed into English from Italian.
Polenta is made with ground yellow or white cornmeal (ground maize) originally made with Chestnut meal in ancient times. It can be ground coarsely or finely depending on the region and the texture desired. As it is known today, polenta derives from earlier forms of grain mush (known as puls or pulmentum in Latin or more commonly as gruel or porridge) commonly eaten in Roman times and after. Early forms of polenta were made with such starches as the grain farro and chestnut flour, both of which are still used in small quantity today. When boiled, polenta has a smooth, creamy texture due to the gelatinization of starch in the grain, though it may not be completely homogeneous if a coarse grind or a particularly hard grain such as flint corn is used.
Polenta was originally and still is classified as a peasant food. In the 1940s and 1950s polenta was not topped with luscious sauces but eaten with just a little salted anchovy or herring. The overreliance on maize as a staple food caused outbreaks of pellagra throughout much of Europe until the 20th century and in the American South during the early 1900s. Maize lacks readily accessible niacin unless cooked with alkali, which nixtamalizes it.
Since the late 20th century, polenta became a premium product. Polenta dishes are on the menu in many high-end restaurants, and prepared polenta can be found in supermarkets at high prices. Many current polenta recipes have given new life to an essentially bland and simple food, enriching it with meat and mushrooms sauces, and adding vegetables, beans or various cheeses into the basic mixture.
Polenta is often cooked in a huge copper pot known in Italian as paiolo. In northern Italy there are many different ways to cook polenta. The some Lombard polenta dishes are polenta taragna (which includes buckwheat flour), polenta uncia, polenta concia, polenta e gorgonzola, and missultin e polenta; all are cooked with various cheeses and butter, except the last one, which is cooked with fish from Lake Como. It can also be cooked with porcini mushrooms, rapini, or other vegetables or meats, such as small song-birds in the case of the Venetian and Lombard dish polenta e osei. In some areas of Piedmont it can be also made of potatoes instead of cornmeal (polenta bianca).
Western polenta is denser, while the eastern one is softer. The variety of cereal used is usually yellow maize, but buckwheat, white maize or mixtures thereof are also used.
Polenta is traditionally a slowly cooked dish. It sometimes takes an hour or longer, and constant stirring is necessary. The time and labor intensity of traditional preparation methods has led to a profusion of shortcuts. These include alternative cooking techniques that are meant to speed up the process. There are also new products such as instant polenta, popular in Italy, that allow for fast, easy preparation at home.
In his book Heat, Bill Buford talks about his experiences as a line cook in Mario Batali's Italian restaurant Babbo. Buford details the differences in taste between instant polenta and slowly cooked polenta, and describes a method of preparation that takes up to three hours, but does not require constant stirring: "polenta, for most of its cooking, is left unattended.... If you don't have to stir it all the time, you can cook it for hourswhat does it matter, as long as you're nearby?" Cook's Illustrated magazine has described a method using a microwave oven that reduces cooking time to 12 minutes and requires only a single stirring to prepare 3 1/2 cups of cooked polenta. Kyle Phillipssuggests making it in a polenta maker or in a slow cooker.
Cooked polenta can also be shaped into balls, patties, or sticks and fried in oil until it is golden brown and crispy; this variety of polenta is called crostini di polenta or polenta fritta. This type of polenta became particularly popular in Southern Brazil as a consequence of Northern Italian immigration. Similarly, once formed into a shape it can also be grilled using, for example, a brustolina grill.
In Albania it is called harapash.
In Bosnia, it is called pura.
In Turkey, it is called as mihlama. It is common especially in the northern region of Turkey.
In Croatia, polenta is common on the Adriatic coast, where it is known as palenta or pura; in northwestern part of Croatia and around Zagreb, it is known as zganci. In the Adriatic Croatian coast, polenta goes together with fish or frog stew .
In Hungary it is known as puliszka and is usually made of coarse cornmeal. Traditionally it is prepared with either sweetened milk or goat's milk cottage cheese, bacon or sometimes mushrooms.
It is known as milho or pirao in Portugal and Madeira.
In Slovenia it is also known as polenta.
The Corsican variety is called pulenta, and it is made with sweet chestnut flour rather than cornmeal.
In Bulgaria and the Republic of Macedonia the dish is called kachamak (KACHAMAK) or polenta (POLENTA).
The Serbian variety is called palenta or kacamak (KACHAMAK).
The Romanian variety is called mamaliga; this word is also borrowed into the Russian . This Romanian variety cooks feta cheese in the polenta.
In southern Austria, polenta is also eaten for breakfast (sweet polenta); the polenta pieces are either dipped in cafe au lait or served in a bowl with the cafe au lait poured on top of it (this is a favourite of children).
Similarity with other foods
North and South American
Polenta is very similar to coosh, a dish of boiled cornmeal mush which is also often sliced and fried but which is often eaten with sweet toppings like maple syrup. A common dish in the cuisine of the Southern United States is grits, with the difference that grits are usually made from quickly-cooked coarsely ground kernels or from lye-treated (nixtamalized) kernels (ground hominy).
Polenta is similar to boiled maize dishes of Mexico, where both maize and hominy originate.
The Brazilian variety is also known as angu. Originally made by native Indians, it is a kind of polenta without salt nor any kind of oil. However, nowadays "Italian" polenta is much more common at Brazilian tables, especially in the southern and southeastern regions (which have high numbers of Italian immigrants), although some people still call it "angu". The city of Sao Bernardo do Campo is notable for its restaurants specialized in frango com polenta (fried chicken with fried polenta).
African and Afro-Caribbean
In South Africa, cornmeal mush is a staple food called mealie pap; elsewhere in Southern Africa it is called sadza or phutu-(pap). It is similar to polenta but most often it is not as dense as polenta. In Zimbabwe, phaletshe, in Botswana, and nshima, in Zambia, and "Oshifima" or Pap in Namibia. In East Africa a similar dish is called ugali, named from the Swahili language. Fufu, a starch-based food from West and Central Africa, may also be made from maize meal. In the north of Angola it is known as funge, probable source of names for the dish in a number of Caribbean countries, destination of slaves from Angola and elsewhere along the West Coast. In the Caribbean, similar dishes are cou-cou (Barbados), funchi (Curacao), funjie (Antigua and Barbuda) and fungi (Virgin Islands). It is known as funche in Puerto Rican cuisine and mayi moulin in Haitian cuisine.
Giorgio V. Brandolini, Storia e gastronomia del mais e della patata nella Bergamasca, Orizzonte Terra, Bergamo, 2007. 32 pages.
This article is licensed under the GNU Free Documentation License. It uses material from the Wikipedia article Polenta