Announcement:my countryside apartment is up on Airbnb!
It is funny how sometimes, when you are absolutely firm on the decision that you do not like something or someone, life finds a way to make you change your mind.
This is the story about how life decided that I had to like polenta, when in fact I never did.
Some three years ago, when I was working an office job, a freelance guy who was in charge of developing a new app walked in and sat at the desk next to mine.
His name was Daniele, and the first thing we noticed, aside a pair of square glasses framing a constantly smiling, kind face, was his strong accent. His way of speaking made me smile: he was from Vicenza, in northern Veneto. I loved that accent, which felt so close to my heart and to a family heritage I hadn’t explored as much as I wanted to. We quickly became friends.
In August, he invited me to go on a tour of Veneto with him for a few days (there is the chronicle of this on the blog!). We visited Vicenza, Verona, Treviso, Bassano del Grappa, Soave, Marostica, and ended up in Caorle, a quiet sea town where some friends held a wonderful dinner at their home. There, they served us polenta instead of bread.
Before I go on, I should stress just how different each region of Italy is. The Triveneto, the part of Italy that once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire and that finds its forte in making the best polenta in the country, is entirely different from the rest of Italy in architecture, language and gastronomy. Triveneto, which includes the ‘Venezia Euganea‘ (Veneto and Venice), the ‘Venezia Tridentina‘ (Trentino Alto-Adige, the region on the Alps), and the ‘Venezia Giulia‘ (Friuli Venezia-Giulia, the north-easternmost part of Italy) has a tradition of polentas of all kinds, colors and consistencies, which are completely unknown to the rest of Italy. And I mean, unknown.
I had already noticed how Veneto definitely lacked decent bread and pizza (sorry Venetians, it’s just how it is), so, at that party, I grabbed a bite of polenta out of politeness, and as soon as I put it in my mouth I couldn’t believe what I tasted.
The consistency. The flavor. Everything was so intense, so much more intense than what I was used to at home.
Polenta, being the epitome of the poor man’s food – even more so than bread alone, had been present in my household of farmers for years and years and years. The point of it was always dousing it in sauces, wether it was meat sauce, mushroom sauce, bean stew, clam ragu, or any other tomato-y, oily, delicious condiment. My mom bought the only polenta she easily found at the supermarket, the kind of flavorless pre-cooked polenta ready in 5 minutes.
Still, even though polenta was definitely present in the traditions of Emilia-Romagna, Marche and Tuscany, I had never had a polenta like that, which was just delicious on its own.
I have not seen Daniele in a while, but sometimes I miss that warm feeling that irradiated from his calm smile, and the polenta he, his friends and his family had offered me. One night, his dad came home late and we happened to come back from a bar we had visited, and all he had for dinner was a plate of green beans from the garden, dressed with some oil from the Garda lake, and polenta. No more.
Those days I spent in Veneto, it rained a lot. Yet, I started associating polenta to that feeling of welcome, warmth and kindness, like the sun coming out after a big storm, like the burst of flowers in bloom when spring is in full swing. I felt a little fire kindling inside my heart, and I left veneto with a bag of that same polenta I had in that house on the sea in Caorle.
Then I met Zaira. At her home, I tried white Venetian polenta for the first time. When we went to S. Stino di Livenza to shoot a job for a client, we tasted the most delicious polentas from ancient varietes of corn: red polenta, white polenta…as well as al the other Venetians, including Valeria (who has a book coming out soon!!) who is definitely a great resource for polenta.
But this is a story for another time.
What made my love for polenta come full circle was Marco.
He is a chef and gastronomy specialist, hailing from Udine, in Friuli, but living in Parma. He had something that reminded me of Daniele: the same square glasses framing his face, the same kind smile. When he takes off his glasses, his short-sighted eyes go from tiny licorice-black pepitas to large, deer-ish irises. I love looking at him in the eyes when he talks about food: they light up, and their light reminds me of the sensation of that little warm fire kindling inside my heart.
La polenta va bene con tutto, he says, in his nordic accent which is slightly reminiscent of that of Veneto, but slightly sweeter. Polenta goes with everything.
Even his name seems to hint at his bond with polenta: Furmenti, his last name, reminds me of the word furment, which in Romagna dialect indicates the kind of coarsely ground corn used to either make polenta in ancient times or to feed the hens. So I have been calling him Polenta since day one. Funny, isn’t it?
He works at Podere Stuard, the place where I took these incredible photos. Podere Stuard is a large farmhouse in the middle of the countryside, but minutes away from Parma, surrounded by greenhouses, fruit orchards and freely scuttling hens, turkeys and roosters, all of which – veg, fruit and animals – of heirloom varieties and races. They grow over 150 varieties of heirloom tomatoes and chillies and rediscovered some incredible forgotten varieties of delicious produce. The farmhouses here are a strange architectural mix of those found in Emilia, square and almost castle-like, and those found in Veneto, with large arched porticos called barchesse. Under the Podere’s porticos, herbs, garlic and chillies hang to dry. I can see Marco working on the kitchen through the old glass door under one of the porticos. In this spring bursting with flowers, the warmth of the sun feels very similar to that polenta feeling I got in Caorle.
‘In Friuli, polenta is made in a copper pot,’ he explains. ‘Technically, polenta is only properly made when it completely detaches from the pot and creates a crust, rather than sticking. It is stirred with a long wooden oar-like spoon, and it is cooked over an open fire in a fireplace or over a traditional stove. When poured over a wooden board – or rather, unmolded, it is left to set a bit and cut with a cotton thread – it would stick to any knife. My grandpa was the one who always did it. To us, it was a ritual.
To us, people from Friuli, polenta made in a copper pot and cut with cotton thread is what fresh pasta made with a rolling pin and fresh eggs is to you in Romagna’.
And once again, ‘food’ is what we had as kids. In our memories, we are all brothers.
Marco loved polenta so much that he somehow made my love for it explode as well, like a girl who is sold over a grand gesture from her guy at their third date.
I wanted to try polenta with a fully vegetarian/vegan sauce for the longest time, and I think I really nailed this one. I used a simplified recipe for a ragu made with spring vegetables that my mom usually makes for tagliatelle, and added seeds to the polenta for added protein and nutrients.
This recipe looks long, but it is super easy to make. You can even make the spring ragu and pea pod cream in advance, or, if you cannot be bothered to make the cream, use some good pesto of your choice. Do not even think of using instant polenta. Try and find stone-milled polenta: the best quality one will have several black speckles, meaning it is whole and stone-milled. If you really cannot find polenta, you could try this recipe with grits. I am sure it is not the same, but I don’t see why it could not work. I got my polenta from Podere Stuard’s shop, produced by Pederzani.
This recipe would be even better if you let the polenta set, then cut it into slices and griddle it, so that it will get crispy on the outside and soft on the inside. Then spoon the cream/pesto and ragu on top as if it were bruschetta.
It is an earthy, abundant, and delicious dish!
Marco says he would like to steal the recipe for a vegan dinner he is planning.
Coming from the king of polenta, it sure is more than flattery.
- 600 to 620 ml / 2½ cups water
- 100g good quality polenta (see above)
- A scant ¼ cup mixed seeds (sunflower, chia, sesame...)
- ½ teaspoon sea salt
- 1 teaspoon extra virgin olive oil
- (For a non-vegan version: 3 heaping tablespoons grated pecorino or parmigiano)
- 1 - 2 tablespoons olive oil
- 1 garlic clove, crushed
- ½ small onion
- 200g shelled fava beans
- 200g fresh peas, shelled
- 5-6 wild asparagus spears (optional)
- ½ cup vegetable stock (or water plus ½ teaspoon veg bouillon)
- Salt and pepper to taste
- The pods from the peas
- ½ small onion, chopped
- 1 cup vegetable stock
- ¼ cup packed basil leaves, chopped
- 3-4 long chives, chopped
- Salt to taste
- Extra virgin olive oil (preferably garlic or basil flavored)
- Fresh chives and chive flowers
- Shaved pecorino or parmigiano (skip if keeping vegan, and use toasted seeds instead)
- Add the olive oil and garlic to a pot and heat the oil on medium low, until the garlic sizzles slightly and flavors the oil.
- Add the onion and cook for 5 minutes, until translucent.
- Add the fava beans, peas, asparagus if using and stir well. Cook for a couple minutes, then add the stock/water and salt and pepper to taste. Cook until the liquid has evaporated and the vegetables are cooked, about 10 minutes. Check for salt.
- If you cannot be bothered to make this, use any good pesto instead of this.
- Remove all the strings from the pea pods. Add the pods, onion and stock to a pot and bring to a boil. Cook until the pods are tender, about 30 minutes. Drain, reserving the stock, and blend with the basil, chives and a good pinch of salt. Add a little stock of the cream seems to thick, but we are aiming at a fairly thick consistency.
- Pass the cream through a sieve, pushing it with the back of a spoon, to get rid of all the stringy parts of the pods.
- Add the water to a pot and bring to a simmer - not a boil. When bubbles appear on the bottom of the pan and the water smokes, start adding the polenta, little by little, and whisking constantly and vigorously. This is important to avoid the formation of clumps. Bring the heat to low and stir well. Add the seeds, oil and salt, and stir well again. Let the polenta cook for about 30 to 40 minutes, stirring every 5-10 minutes. Refer to the instructions on the package for exact cooking time. If you want to use cheese (super tasty addition) stir it in when the polenta is almost ready. When the polenta is ready, immediately transfer it to a serving dish. If you time things right, you should have all three parts of the recipe ready at the same time.
- If you're not keeping the recipe vegan, add a couple tablespoons of grated pecorino or parmigiano when the polenta is done cooking, and stir it in. Delicious!
- Spoon the pea pod cream (or a little pesto if not making the cream), then the spring ragu on top of the polenta. Drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil, preferably basil or garlic or lemon flavored, and chopped chives and chive flowers. If keeping vegan, sprinkle some toasted seeds. Otherwise, some pecorino or parmigiano shavings would be great!
When you eat polenta, I hope you will think of this warm feeling. I hope you will feel that soft warmth of spring, when everything feels velvety and tepid, like the feathers of the chicks and petals of every flower. Think of those elderly people from Veneto and Friuli stirring polenta over the coals.
And think of those who are their grandchildren. I am sure that you can feel a little bit like them at every bite, and I am sure the polenta will be tenfold as delicious.