Photo by @rgs/FlickrCC
Although polenta is woven firmly into the cooking and culture of much of Europe, it's relatively modern, since corn didn't come to Europe till after Columbus, at the very end of the 15th century. However, porridges made from dried and ground grains existed long before that. While it was generally rejected in well-to-do parts of the continent, polenta was quickly put to use as an economical way to feed the poor. In hard-scrabble, scrounging economies--Tuscany, the mountains of Northern Italy and Greece and remote spots like Romania, corn polenta became THE major food for most people.
While it is still associated in some people's minds with poverty, it's also connected to the communities that cook it in the same way that pasta, rice, fish and paella are elsewhere. They're part of everyday eating, part of the seasonal swings of celebration, tied into religious feasting and fasting rituals.
On a more modern, socio-economic, political level, polenta demonstrates what great food can still be about. In his excellent Omnivore's Dilemma, Michael Pollan points out that "There are some 45,000 products on supermarket shelves and more than a quarter of them now contain corn." Of those, I'm sure polenta variants are less than a tenth of one percent. What he's talking about is the corn syrup in soda, the corn that's fed to the cows that we buy in the butcher section, the corn in the candy bars at the checkout counter.
Whereas the other corn activity is rather intentionally, or at least practically, secretive, great polenta puts corn out front. Unlike all those others items where corn is soda pop, corn is beef, corn is candy bars, with polenta, is corn is corn. And it's good!
The traditional technique is to steadily add a thin stream of dry polenta to boiling water, stirring continuously to avoid lumping, then to continue cooking and stirring for an hour or more till it's done. At best, this can be tricky; at worst, you wind up with an annoyingly large number of very unpleasant little lumps. I go for simply stirring in the polenta when the water is warm but NOT boiling. It seems to work every time, and I can't quite figure out why everyone insists on waiting for the water to boil.
In terms of proportion, I generally go four parts water to one part polenta, but you can adjust up or down depending on what thickness you want. As far as cooking time goes, I'd definitely say the longer the better. If you're in a huge rush, 20 minutes of bubbling action will probably suffice, but the flavor will be less developed than it could be.
While cooking, you do have to stir it, but I'll say flat out that the amount of stirring required is really not all that big a deal. Once it's going, I let the polenta cook 15 to 20 minutes between stirs and it works fine. Covering the pot will keep it from cooking down too quickly and from forming a skin on the top. Less frequent stirring is likely to lead to the formation of a crust at the bottom of the pot. But like the soccarat (the crunchy bits of rice that stick to the bottom of the paella pan), the crust from the polenta pot is actually highly prized. I scrape it from the pot and eat it in thin slices, sort of like pork rinds or potato chips for corn eaters.
Cooked, Cooled, Slices and Fried Polenta
First, you cook the raw cornmeal and eat it warm and soft from the pot. Additional polenta is left overnight to cool, which makes it easy to slice for frying or baking. Polenta prepared in this manner is delicious and can be served as a side dish with almost any meat, fish or vegetable, just as you would a potato or rice. You can also do polenta on the spit--skewers of polenta and Fontina dipped in egg and rolled in bread crumbs and then fried.