Polenta, typically made with corn meal, is a traditional dish from the Veneto region. It has many variations, from a soft side dish served with meats and fish, to a firmer texture that can be grilled or broiled. During our cooking classes in Italy, we’ve made our own and topped with sopressa and cheeses. Our wonderful hosts at Villa Margherita served it grilled with baccala.
Polenta is an ancient dish, but the use of corn as the base grain is not. Corn was first introduced to Italy in the 1700’s, from the New World. Prior to that, other grains such as spelt, millet, even ground chickpeas were mixed with water to produce a porridge. Buckwheat was commonly used, and it still used today in very northern areas where corn is not as easily grown. The following recipe uses a combination of buckwheat and corn meal to produce a flavorful polenta with a bit of a nutty taste.
Polenta was traditionally cooked in a payola, a huge copper cauldron which would hang over the fire in an open fire place. When the water in the cauldron came to the boil, the corn meal was sprinkled into it. Then the hard work began. Housewives needed to be equipped with an olio di gomito, a well oiled elbow and a sturdy bastone, a long wooden stick, for the polenta had to be stirred continuously.
Once the polenta begins to move away from the sides of the saucepan, it is tipped out onto a wooden board and sliced with a piece of string. It is usually eaten when still warm instead of bread. Polenta is often served soft with rabbit, lamb, game or forest mushroom ragout. Italians also like to eat it with sausages or cream cheese and in Venice it often accompanies fish dishes. Polenta can also be served as primo, a first course, spread with a little butter and topped with freshly grated cheese. Favorite uses for left overs are grilling, frying or polenta gratin with a sauce.
Buckwheat Polenta with Mushrooms and Poached Egg
Serves 44 cups water 2/3 cup polenta or corn meal 1/3 cup buckwheat groats Kosher salt 2 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil 1 teaspoon shallot, minced 2 portobello mushrooms, or 6 large white mushrooms, sliced 1 clove garlic, minced 10 ounces baby spinach ¼ cup grated piave vecchio or grana cheese Shaved piave vecchio or grana cheese 1 tablespoon white wine vinegar 4 very fresh eggs Fresh ground pepper Truffle oil
Place the 4 cups water into a medium saucepan and bring to a boil. Add salt. Whisk in the corn meal and buckwheat groats, whisking until no lumps remain. Reduce the heat to a simmer, and allow the polenta to thicken, stirring often. If it becomes too thick, add a little water to loosen it. Cook for 30-40 minutes.
While polenta is cooking, heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan. Add the shallots and cook until soft. Add the mushroom and allow to brown and soften. Add the garlic and cook until aromatic, about 1 more minute. Finally, add the spinach and cook until wilted. Remove from heat.
When the polenta is done, add the grated cheese and the butter and stir to combine. Keep warm while you poach the eggs.
Fill a medium saucepan halfway with water, and bring to a gentle simmer. Add the vinegar and some salt. Carefully break the eggs into the simmering water. Alternatively, you can break them, one at a time, into a small ramekin and slip them into the simmering water. Poach for 2-4 minutes, depending upon how runny you like your eggs. Remove from pan with a slotted spoon.
Lay out 4 plates. Place a large spoonful of polenta on each, top with the spinach/mushroom mixture, and then with a poached egg. Garnish with the shaved cheese, salt and fresh ground pepper. Drizzle with truffle oil.