antithesis of modern aspirations, right here :::
Winter in California. The fog sends ribbons of downy gray over the bay as I take the bridge over the bay on my commute to work. The seagulls and pipers are thrown across the shallow water in clots of white and gray. I am lucky that I can leave the house at the point in the morning when the sun is just tugging itself above the waterline, casting oranges and yellows over the blue.
It is often at this point in the day, before I am heavy with work and the unwelcomed sitting that it requires for much of the day, that I am immersed in an audio book (The Tiger’s Wife, highly recommended!) or mentally preparing myself for the difficult patients, talkative or overbearing, and for the concern of getting home in time to have dinner with my family. Versatility of life.
Polenta is all about versatility, and its undeniable ability to make almost better leftovers than the original dish. A large pot may provide nourishment like porridge one day, left to cool, then sliced, grilled or fried the next. Adding parmesan cheese is almost obligatory, why wouldn’t you? There are numerous recipes that use salt cod, grilled sardines, various game birds, hare, and even snails to serve with it. Polenta is like one of my husband’s favorite mentors from graduate school: extremely humble, but versatile, and never quite recognizing the impact its presence makes in a room or dish.
In her book Honey from a Weed: Fasting and Feasting in Tuscany, Catalonia, The Cyclades, and Apulia, Patience Gray sums it up nicely: “The idea of polenta, planted firmly in the north Italian imagination, is the antithesis of modern aspirations. It therefore intrudes on modern life like a vague emotional regret.” Modern life, the swirl of multi-tasking we try to accomplish each day as we balance careers, parenting, and our own personal meditations, is not simple. Polenta is simple, even its versatility. It coaxes us out of our computer screens, our deadlines, and our inability to ever have a clean house with two small children living in it. It is the simpleton of food, and sometimes ignorance is bliss.
It is impossible to ever detach ourselves from the reality of life’s complexities, but we can try temporarily. Polenta, you make things simple in a complicated world.
- unsalted butter for greasing pan
- 2¾ cups water
- 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- sea salt
- 1 cup coarse polenta (I have also used fine)
- black pepper
- 3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 2½ cups chicken or mushroom broth
- 1 tablespoon fine chopped fresh parsley
- Grease 5- x 8½-inch loaf pan with butter.*
- In a large saucepan, bring water, 1 tablespoon oil, and ½ teaspoon salt to a boil. Slowly add polenta in a thin stream, whisking. Reduce heat to medium and cook, whisking constantly, for 2 minutes.
- Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring often with a wooden spoon, until thickened and tender. The original recipe notes this will take 40 minutes with coarse polenta. Fine polenta takes me about 20 minutes.
- Season with ½ teaspoon pepper, then remove from heat.
- Transfer polenta to prepared pan and spread evenly with a rubber spatula. Let polenta cool completely in pan on a wire rack. When polenta is cool, turnout onto a cutting board. Sprinkle cheese on top, pressing lightly with fingers to help cheese adhere. Cut polenta into 1-inch cubes (mine were a little smaller).
- In a large non-stick pan, heat remaining tablespoon of oil over medium heat. Add polenta cubes, cheese-side down, ensuring they are not overcrowded.**
- Cook until browned, 4 to 6 minutes. Flip and cook until bottoms are browned, about 2 minutes more. Divide cubes between 4 bowls.
- In a medium saucepan, bring broth just to a boil. Divide broth among bowls. Serve warm.