Polenta was once a staple throughout Italy until it was replaced by pasta in the early 20th century. This hearty-carb was the mainstay of a peasant diet, supplemented with bits of meat and vegetables to complete the meal.
This is a dish with an interesting aesthetic twist – it's spread out and eaten off the table (or large chopping board, if you're feeling precious). This is as rustic as it gets and makes for a very memorable experience.
Some up-market restaurants (mainly in the US as far as I can see) are replicating this simple peasant food and elevating it into something of grandeur...
A simple Polenta base (see below for some twists)
3.5 litres water
600g polenta flour
20g of salt
Bring the water to the boil, add salt and then add the polenta in a steady stream. Cook slowly, stirring constantly for 35-45 minutes. Resist the temptation to use instant polenta – it is not a good substitute. It's as simple as that to make...although I have heard many a tale about who makes a better polenta.
When I was first invited to try this dish at the farmhouse of my good friend Elio I was intrigued; not for the polenta but for the way it is eaten. The cooked polenta, with its thick porridge like consistency, is poured over the kitchen table (previously scrubbed) and spread thinly. On top of this layer of hot steaming polenta is added first a thin layer of hot tomato sauce and then braised meat. Each diner takes their seat and each delineates their appetite and territory by making a circle in the polenta with their knife in an area closest to where they are seated. The food within that circle is theirs to enjoy. Forks will not stray into other's territory!
Researching this dish, it seems that in many other regions a wooden board is used rather than the kitchen table and with the polenta piled up much thicker with a well in the middle into which a ragu is poured. Everyone helps themselves.
I like the Abruzzese way better – something very unique and I suspect more authentic about marking your territory on the kitchen table. And for historical accuracy I have found references that suggest that the sauce should be meagre, rather than the more opulent sauces that are sometimes used.
But if you want to try one of these more opulent sauces here is recipe from Carluccio that is a little more elaborate.
For a more opulent sauce...
10 tablespoons olive oil
4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
100ml white wine
2 tablespoons concentrated tomato paste
1kg firm and fleshy red peppers
1kg firm and fleshy yellow peppers
2 red chillies or more
6 tablespoons white wine vinegar
600g polenta flour
Pecorino cheese, grated
(credit: Antonio Carlucio, the Collection) – serves 6-8
First, prepare the ragù. Cut the pork into walnut-sized pieces. Heat half the olive oil in a pan and fry the meat until browned on all sides. Add the garlic and cook gently for 10–15 minutes, stirring from time to time. Mix the white wine with the tomato paste, add to the pan and cook for a further 20 minutes.
Meanwhile, halve, core and de-seed the peppers, then cut into strips. Heat the remaining olive oil in a frying pan and fry the peppers quite briskly until soft, letting only the edges caramelise. Add the chillies (as much as you can take), a little salt and the wine vinegar, and sauté for a minute or two. Add the peppers to the meat, and taste for salt and chilli. Cook for a further 30 minutes, or until the meat is tender.
Meanwhile, make the polenta. Bring the water to the boil in a large pan with 20g salt. Pour in the polenta and cook, stirring, until thickened and smooth, about 30–40 minutes (or just 5–6 minutes if you’ve cheated and used quick polenta).
Pour the polenta onto the spianatora, then spoon the pork ragù into the middle. Sit everyone around, armed with a fork and a big appetite! Serve the Parmesan or pecorino cheese in a separate bowl.
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