One sunny afternoon, I was talking with a shopkeeper in Italy, and he asked me where I was from. When I mentioned New York’s Hudson Valley, his eyes took on a melting expression, as if he was reliving some magical moment. Then, after returning from his golden reverie, he said, “I had the most wonderful food there!” That stunned me. The man lived in Florence-Freakin’-Italy! What exotic foodstuff could we have possibly served that could impress him?
He answered— sotto voce, as if the words were too holy to be spoken aloud— “Corn on the cob.”
He was right, of course, corn on the cob is a wonderful thing— but why didn’t he know about the dish before coming here?
It’s simply because we are all creatures of habit and will do almost anything to avoid changing our eating habits. When corn was first brought to Italy from the New World in the sixteenth century, Italians had never experienced a type of grain that could be eaten in its natural state. Grains were dried, and ground, before cooking or baking. They took the new ingredient and treated it as they had since the time of the Ancient Romans. For thousands of years, Italians boiled grains to make a thick porridge called pulmentum. Italians are still making it —but with corn instead of emmer wheat or barley.
Today it’s called polenta.
My mother never made polenta when I was a child, but she did make a New England variation called “hominy grits.” It was a very different dish from the grits that Southerners know. For one thing, in New England, yellow cornmeal is preferred over the soft white grits typically served in the south. Like some polenta dishes, Yankee grits are allowed to cool, then sliced and reheated. Unlike most polentas I’ve known, the slices are fried (often in bacon fat) until crisp and served with a topping of molasses, and are eaten as a breakfast dish.
What all these dishes have in common is the main ingredient, cornmeal, and their initial preparation. Virtually every recipe says that the cornmeal needs to be sprinkled slowly into boiling water, while stirring constantly. Some recipes even say that it is important to stir only in one direction.
No matter who writes the recipe, the primary concern seems to be the prevention of dreaded lumps. I find this puzzling — not the aversion to lumps, which is easily understood, but the technique, which seems both unnecessarily labor-intensive and reflects a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of lumps.
If you fished a typical lump out of a pot of polenta, and sliced it in half, the lump’s structure would be obvious. The outside of the lump would be moist and shiny, while the inside would consist of dry unmixed cornmeal. The structure reveals the lump’s formation. When starches are mixed with hot water (usually around 141 degrees Fahrenheit), the individual grains swell as they absorb water; the process is known as gelatinization. Gelatinized starch is relatively impermeable, which is to say it doesn’t allow water to pass through it.
When added to hot water too quickly, the outside of a small mass of cornmeal gelatinizes, preventing water from reaching the raw starch inside. A lump is born.
The careful sprinkling and stirring is intended to prevent that from happening. Cooks have always done it this way, and continue to teach others to do the same. Why not —it works, right? What if there was an easier way to accomplish the same smooth-textured polenta?
Think about the cause of the lumps: hot water interacting with the starches on the outside of a small mass of cornmeal to seal water out of the inner portion. If you stir cornmeal into cold water (so no gelatinization occurs) and then heat the water, each individual grain of cornmeal is gelatinized, and nice smooth polenta is the result. No lumps, and much less stirring.
My friend Bob DelGrosso (ahungerartist.bobdelgrosso.com) has refined the technique further. He stirs the cornmeal into half of the required (cold) water, forming a slurry, then adds that to the other half of the water, which has already been brought to the boil. The results are the same, but it takes less time to cook.
Polenta with Gorgonzola and Fried Sage Leaves
This is based on a dish painter/sculptor/furniture-maker Howie Michaels made for me, many years ago. It sounds like a lot of sage, but when fried, the leaves become mild and delicately crisp.
• 1 1/3 cups cornmeal
• 1 teaspoon salt
• 2 cups cold water
• 2 cups boiling water
• 1/2 cup pecorino Romano cheese, grated
• 1/2 teaspoon nutmeg, freshly grated
• 2 to 3 dozen fresh sage leaves
• 2 tablespoons olive oil
• 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
• 1 cup Gorgonzola, crumbled
Stir the cornmeal and salt into the cold water until evenly mixed. Stir the cornmeal slurry into the boiling water, stirring to mix. Lower the heat to medium, stirring occasionally with a wooded spoon. When the polenta starts to get thick, stir more frequently (because this is when it’s most likely to scorch). When the spoon causes the polenta to pull away from the pot, making a soft ripping noise, the polenta is done.
Spread the cooked polenta, while still hot, onto a greased sheet pan. Allow it to cool thoroughly. This can be done a day ahead of time.
Preheat the oven to 375°F (190°C). Cut the cooled polenta into the desired shapes, and arrange on an ovenproof dish — overlapping, but really only one layer deep. Sprinkle the grated Romano and nutmeg evenly over the polenta. Bake until the cheese is bubbly and just starts to turn faintly brown.
While the polenta is in the oven, fry the sage leaves in the oil and butter until crisp. If they’re done before the polenta, they can drain on paper towels — but do NOT discard the butter and oil in the pan!
Take the hot polenta from the oven, sprinkle with the Gorgonzola and fried sage leaves, then drizzle the sage-flavored oil-butter mixture all over the top.
Gary Allen’s most recently published book, (this September), is Sausage: A Global History. The next one, Can It!: A History of Preserved Foods is soon to follow sometime next year. You can find more of his speculations about things he has been known to (but really shouldn’t) put in his mouth — his own foot being a prime example of the latter — on his website: onthetable.us