Polenta: The Complete Guide

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Photo by @rgs/FlickrCC

Eating Soft Polenta

This is really about as easy as it gets. As long as you've started with good polenta and have good toppings to put on it, it's pretty hard to go wrong. You can do it with nothing but good butter, salt and pepper. It's good with Gorgonzola, Parmigiano-Reggiano, fresh goat cheese, Fontina val D'aosta or just about any cheese, really. And it's great with tomato sauces of all sorts.

Polenta Partners

Like pasta, there is an almost limitless number of things to accompany polenta--perhaps even more because polenta is also good with sweet sauces as well as savory:

• Two Great Butters to Melt on Top : A bowl of great polenta topped with a large pat of good butter is such a simple dish, and it's a beautiful thing to behold and to eat. We recommend either the Pastureland Butter from Minnesota or Cultured Butter from Vermont, both available at our Creamery Cheese Shop .

• Barrel-Aged Feta from Northern Greece : The very special, barrel-aged feta we get from the Almyros region of Greece is pretty remarkably good, whether you crumble onto (or into) polenta, eat it as is with a slice of bread or use it on salad, omelets or most anything else. It's made from milk that's gathered only from sheep that are grazing in the pastures.

• Really Good Gorgonzola : Some simply lay a slab of their beloved blue cheese next to the bowl of polenta; the cheese needs to be at room temperature so that when you pick some up with your fork and put it on the hot polenta, it gets soft and melty. Others lay a whole slice of the cheese atop the bowl and let it soften that way. Better Gorgonzola is of course going to taste better. Ours is coming in from northern Italy, aged by Carlo and Giovanni Giori.

• Parmigiano-Reggiano from the Hills of Modena : From one farm in the hills above Modena (home of Balsamic vinegar), this is a very special cheese. Having tasted from probably a hundred different dairies over the years, this cheese consistently stands out to me for its full flavor and fine finish. I could go on at length about what makes this cheese so good, but space doesn't allow it.

• Tomato sauces from Il Mongetto : Probably the best bottled tomato sauces I've ever tried, made up in the Piedmont region of Northern Italy, not all that far (by American standards) from where the Marinos mill their corn.

• Chestnut Honey : If you are eating polenta for breakfast, I really recommend topping it with a bit of this wonderfully bittersweet honey.

• Little Dragons from Zingerman's Creamery : This is the newest cheese from the Creamery. It's great on its own but it happens--really just coincidentally--to be particularly good on polenta. It's a fairly fresh goat cheese, one that's very lightly pressed to make for a modestly creamier texture than our super fresh rounds of City Goats, then rolled in fresh tarragon leaves.

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Photo by @rgs/FlickrCC

Really Great Polenta

• Eight-Row Corn from the Marino Family : The Marinos are very much head-down, noses to the grindstone, sticking stubbornly and smilingly to their traditional regional cooking. They grow an antique variety of corn called Otto File . The name means "Eight Row" and is likely a very close descendant of the old--also eight-rowed--corns that would have come over with Columbus and crew. The grains--the corn kernels--are huge compared to what I'm used to seeing over here; each is bigger than the nail on your little finger. Yields, not surprisingly, are low. The corn is grown organically, field-ripened, and dried primarily in the sun when possible. The milling is done with old stones and the germ is left in. We bring it regularly from Italy and store it here under refrigerated conditions to protect its quality.

• Spin Rossa della Valsugana Polenta : Glenn Roberts at Anson Mills has embarked on what I think is now a lifelong mission to find amazing old corns and restore them to viable economic existence. We do sell, cook and eat many of the old varieties that he offers. And this very special polenta is one of the best. It's known in Italian as " Spin Rossa della Valsugana ", which simply means the spiny red corn from the Valley of Sugana. When we first started serving it at the Roadhouse last year, it was the likely the FIRST commercial crop of this seed variety to be grown in the Americas in many centuries.

The Florianis family in Trentino (on the Eastern end of Italy) were the LAST ones in their region harvesting this variety of corn and for all anyone can tell, perhaps the last farmers anywhere growing it. They say that their family has grown this particular corn for generations as long as anyone can remember, likely since the 16th century. The corn was actually something people in the areas were ashamed of--polenta was a sign of poverty and the corn itself was considered to be coarse in appearance and flavor in comparison to fancier looking modern alternatives. When one of the Floriani sons sent a few dozen seeds to Glenn back in South Carolina, Glenn ate the dried corn "raw"--there wasn't enough to grind or cook--and was blown away by the flavor of it and wanted to get more to grow.

Glenn brought some of their seed corn back to the US and started growing it organically on about fifteen different farms around the country; the idea is to spread out the growing to protect the corn and make sure that it survives. Having been serving this amazing polenta at the Roadhouse on specials all year, I can tell you that it's pretty remarkable stuff. We've been cooking it with nothing more than water and salt and it's really pretty spectacularly flavorful. Buttery, rich, it tastes distinctly of corn and it's just really good.