As we explore the Veneto on our Italy walking tours, we see many a corn field, but very rarely fresh corn on the menu; the corn grown here is destined to be dried and ground, and used year round in polenta. A staple here since ancient times, polenta was first made with wild grains from primitive wheats including faro, millet, spelt, and chickpeas, until the Saracens introduced buckwheat, or ‘grana saraceno’ to Italy. This became the most popular grain used for polenta until the 15th or 16th century, when corn, or maize, was introduced.
Maize was very easy to cultivate in the lands of Northern Italy, and quickly replaced buckwheat and the other grains. The yield of maize compared to other cereals was much better, making it much more profitable a crop for landowners. Unfortunately, the nutritional value of maize is not as high as the grains it replaced, as it continued to act as a staple in the cuisine of the lower classes in Northern Italy. Today, maize is still the predominate grain used in polenta.
Polenta still plays a major role in the cuisine of the Veneto. It is most commonly prepared with a yellow Marano corn, which is hardy and can be grown in both the plains and mountain foothills of the region. However, until the end of the Second World War, a local white corn variety called Biancoperla was the most highly prized. This corn, which has tapering, elongated cobs with large, bright, pearly-white kernels, was widely planted during the second half of the 19th century. It is know for its fineness and delicate flavor, but has a lower yield than its yellow counterpart.
Today, a few dedicated farmers continue to grow this Biancoperla corn varietal. It has been recognized by the Slow Food Presidium in order to ensure the quality of the Biancoperla cornmeal and to promote it to consumers.
During a recent private walking tour, we enjoyed another wonderful cooking class with Chef Lucas. We made this baked polenta recipe, topped with fresh asiago cheese and mushrooms, but you can envision countless variations! Lucas uses truffles for an elegant spin on this rustic dish.
I paired this with a crisp Chiaretto rose from the Bardolino wine zone.
Polenta al Forno con Asiago Fresco e Funghi
4 cups water
1 cup biancoperla polenta
Extra virgin olive oil
10 ounces fresh mushrooms, cleaned and cut into small pieces
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves
10 ounces fresh asiago cheese, cut into 1 inch pieces
Preheat the oven to 400°F.
Bring the water to a boil in a medium heavy saucepan over high heat. When boiling, add the polenta in a slow, steady stream through your fingers, whisking constantly so it doesn’t clump up. If you get any lumps, mash them against the side of the pot with a wooden spoon and keep stirring. Lower the heat to as low a simmer as your stove can manage and cook, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is thick and shiny and begins to pull away from the sides of the pan, at least 45 minutes. Season with salt.
You can read my Tips on Making Polenta here.
Divide the polenta between 4 oven-proof serving dishes for individual servings, or place all in one larger oven-proof dish for family style.
Heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium high heat. Add the mushrooms and thyme and cook until soft and slightly browned. Season with salt and remove from heat.
Top the polenta with the cheese cubes, then the mushrooms. Place the polenta in the oven and cook until heated through and brown on top. Serve.