Friday, February 6, 2009

Polenta: Peasant Food Never Tasted So Good

Okay, the title of this post is a little misleading. Peasant food is often the best food. Throughout history, the worlds poor have been forced to do more with less. The result of their toil is frequently delicious.

What is it?

Polenta is staple of the Northern Italian diet that dates back to Ancient Roman times. Grains like fero, buckwheat, millet and spelt were all interchangeable in the making of polenta. The grains were cooked in boiling water until a mushy paste was formed, at which point it could be baked or eaten as a porridge.

Once corn from the new world was cultivated in Italy, polenta became the corn based dish it remains to this day. Unfortunately, corn based polenta is far less nutritional than what was made with buckwheat or other grains; however, corn grows easily in Northern Italy and its cultivation benefited wealthy land owners in the north.

What was once a food for the poor can now be found on the menu's of fine dinning restaurants. Fortunately, polenta can still be made cheaply and easily at home. It goes great with with a wide variety of dishes. Here is one that is healthy, tasty and affordable.

The Recipe


  • Polenta - I recommend Bob's Red Mill brand, which is also labeled as Corn Grits. (Polenta and corn grits are really the same thing.)
  • 1 tbsp per Butter
  • 1/3 Cup Grated Parmesan Cheese Per Serving
  • 3 or 4 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • 1/3 Cup White Wine - You should use whatever you have open around the house, red, white and even sweet vermouth all work well.
  • 1 Large Onion - Chopped
  • 2 or 3 Cloves of Garlic - Finely Chopped
  • 1 Package Baby Bella Mushrooms - Slice each mushroom into 4 to 5 pieces depending on size.
  • 1 15oz Can of Diced Tomatoes - Try and get them without too much salt so you can season to your own taste.
  • 1 Can Cannelloni Beans - Drained and rinsed.
  • 1 Package of Baby Spinach
  • You will also need salt, pepper (red and black) and oregano.
First, heat the oil in a large saute pan on medium heat. Once the pan is hot add the onion and let it cook until softened and translucent.

Next, add the mushrooms and garlic (and more oil if pan becomes to dry). Add the wine and let it evaporate in the pan. Let the mushrooms cook until they begin to brown and all of the liquid is cooked off.

Now, add the tomatoes and the beans to the pan. You can season the mixture with salt, pepper and oregano. Leave it alone, stirring only to insure it does not burn. Let the liquid cook down for about 15 to 20 minutes until it is nice and thick, like a stew. Once it is done add the baby spinach, turn off the heat and stir until the spinach has wilted into the mixture.

While the liquid is cooking off you should start the polenta. Follow the instructions on the package. Be sure to stir it frequently and keep it covered when you are not stirring. If it starts to dry out before it is done cooking add some more water and stir until it is smooth. You may also need to add more water it you use a gas stove. Once the potenta is finished add the butter and cheese, turn off the heat and stir.

Serve It Up

Just top a serving of the polenta with a large spoonful of the sauce. Serve and enjoy with a glass of red wine or a hearty white. Extra polenta can be poured, while still hot, into small loaf pans. Let it cool to room temperature before covering and refrigerating. The next day you can slice the polenta loaf and broil the pieces in the oven with some more cheese and top with remaining sauce or a fried egg.

Cheap and tasty, what more could you want?

1 comment:

  1. Man, this reminds me that I need to start making polenta again. I made it a lot in college (was cheaper in the UK believe it or not!), but here it seems limited to these little boxes. Maybe if I just use corn grits like you say. I thought they were a little different in grain size.