Polenta might once have been christened 'the food of the poor' but is it now bringing some Italian glamour to British dining?
I love to travel abroad and one of my favourite countries is Italy, especially when it comes to seeking out gastronomic gems. Among the many delicious Italian regional specialities I've come across, one of my favourites is polenta - golden-yellow cornmeal made from ground maize. There's also white polenta (polenta bianca) which is popular in Venice, although it's more expensive than the yellow.
Polenta is grown in northern Italy and is the traditional diet staple, more so than pasta, which is favoured more in the south. It's gluten-free, tasty and filling and at its most basic, it's boiled with salted water to a thick porridge consistency and usually served with a strong tasting sauce or cheese; herbs, garlic, cheese and butter can also be added as it cooks. No longer 'the food of the poor', nowadays polenta is served in homes and restaurants throughout Italy.
Much of Italy's polenta is still made the old-fashioned way, which involves constant stirring for up to 50 minutes. You can buy 'instant' polenta which takes just a few minutes cooking, but I don't think that the results and the flavour are as good as the traditional type. Some people think (wrongly in my opinion) that polenta is bland and stodgy, but when made correctly it's very tasty. The secret is to cook and season it properly, just as they do in Italy. I enjoy cooking with polenta because it's so versatile and absorbs any flavour it's matched with. Boiled polenta creamed with butter, Taleggio cheese, toasted pine nuts, garlic and finely chopped spring onions makes a delicious inexpensive meal.
Boiled polenta can be poured into a tray and left to cool and set. I cut it into slices and fry them in a little butter or brush with oil and grill them before topping with cheese or vegetables. Polenta is great too served with soup or stew instead of bread. Deep-fried polenta slices, tossed in sugar and lemon zest and served with mascarpone, is a simple but delectable Italian dessert.
Instant polenta is fine to use in baking; it makes fantastic bread and cakes with a slightly crunchy, grainy texture. Warm polenta cake soaked in a fresh lemon syrup is one of my favourite summer desserts, served with a generous dollop of whipped cream and perhaps a few strawberries.
Most supermarkets sell polenta; you'll find it in Italian delis too. It's available both coarse and finely ground.
Feeling inspired? Try these polenta recipes.