Polenta Moves Up in the World

April 13, 2009

By Nina Barrett

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Once just considered cheap, good food, pizza and pasta have joined the ranks of haute cuisine. What Italian celebrity chef doesn't boast a wood-fired pizza oven, or make the house pasta from scratch? But pizza and pasta have a third stepsister who's still waiting for her invitation to the gourmet ball. For Chicago Public Radio, Nina Barrett reports.

More than 2,000 years ago, the Etruscans of northern Italy were boiling stone-ground meal over an open flame to make a hot, nourishing mush called polenta. Later, it fueled the Roman legions as they crossed the Alps to conquer Europe: the original Breakfast, Lunch, and Dinner of Champions.

But Northwestern University Italian instructor Alessandra Visconti, who was born in Rome, says that in much of Italy, polenta has never really attained the culinary glamour of other dishes.

VISCONTI: There's this name we have for people from the North. We call them “polentoni,” which is not really—it's a little insulting, because the “oni” suffix means “big polenta eaters.”

Like referring to our own northerly neighbors as "Cheese Heads," this is meant to telegraph a certain lack of sophistication that's associated with the food without being actually inherent in the food. Because with a dash of imagination and the right fairy godmother, polenta is quite capable of competing with her trendier stepsisters pizza and pasta, and even outshining them.

CINDERELLA MUSIC: "In My Own Little Corner"

NANCY BRUSSAT: The thing about it is, to me, it is a wonderful carrier for almost anything. You can dress it up, you can make it simple, you just take it out of the pot and put butter on it and eat it plain, or you can spread it on a slab, let it harden, do all kinds of things with it the next day…

That's Nancy Brussat of Convito Market and Café in Wilmette. She founded Convito in 1980 to bring the Italian foods she loved to America. Polenta has always been on her table, both at the restaurant and at home.

One recent morning, Brussat and her executive chef Noe Sanchez staged for me a veritable polenta fashion show. They made six different dishes that showed how, like the proverbial little black dress, polenta could go from simple to stunning, with the help of the right accessories.

The basic dish is very easy. You dissolve cornmeal in a pot of boiling water and stir it for about 30 minutes, as it thickens into a robust paste that stands up to a wooden spoon.

BARRETT: Essentially what we're making here is cream of wheat. BRUSSAT: [Laughs] It's a mush. Some call it Italian grits.

In its warm, mushy form, polenta is the ultimate comfort food. It's well suited for family consumption, by children, vegetarians, and meat-eaters alike. Brussat served me one dish adorned by nothing more than gorgonzola cheese and butter that was stunning in its simplicity and elegance. A second dish topped with a tomato and sausage sauce was the kid-friendly version. You could do this with any spaghetti sauce or stew, but the polenta's even better than pasta for soaking up every delicious drop of liquid.

If you're feeding a family, by the way, you couldn't ask for a more recession-friendly ingredient. The fancy, imported, stone-ground bags Convito sells may seem expensive at $5.99, but they yield 16 half-cup servings for 25 cents each. And Brussat shared a secret that can make it even more dirt-cheap: Since polenta essentially is the same thing as grits, you can make a TJ Maxx version of virtually any polenta dish using Aunt Jemima cornmeal. Chef Noe demonstrated that by transforming cold slabs of the Aunt Jemima stuff he'd made the day before into a series of dazzling haute-polenta dishes. He cut circles and triangles from the slab, fried them up crispy in butter, and then layered them into delicate towers with other textures and flavors.

MUSIC: “Tres Tres Chic”

One combined the polenta wafers with sautéed spinach, grilled chicken breast, and chianti jus. Another had one expertly seared scallop, garnished with a miniature fennel salad.

SANCHEZ: This is one of the reasons we like to put a little decoration on top, to combine flavors. It's not just to combine colors but to combine flavors as well.

Then, with one last wave of the magic wand, his polenta was ready to go to the ball—or rather, the banquet: He plated one perfect herb-roasted Cornish game hen on a polenta pillow that soaked up its sauce of pan juices reduced with red wine. This presentation was based on an ancient Venetian banquet dish Brussat once read about.

BRUSSAT: They would take a songbird and skewer them and roast them. And then they would put them skewered on a bed of polenta, their beady little eyes looking up at the diners as they came in. A lot of it was for dramatic effect.

Even without the beady little eyes, she'd proved her point: there was no limit to how splendiferous polenta could become when dressed with sufficient flair. So of course I decided to try it myself. I invited that Italian instructor, Alessandra Visconti, and her colleague in the Italian department Giulia Guidotti, over to my place, to make the case for becoming a Big Polenta Eater. GUIDOTTI: It's wonderful! VISCONTI: It's beautiful! GUIDOTTI: It smells so good! Let's try…Superb!

That was me using the Aunt Jemima trick, by the way. I fried the triangles in butter and olive oil, then layered them with a creamy mushroom-wine sauce. Then, for my own dramatic climax…
BARRETT: It's buckwheat polenta with wild boar.
VISCONTI: Wow!
GUIDOTTI: Oh!
VISCONTI: Where did you find the wild boar? BARRETT: I went out and shot it!

Okay, so maybe I just found a frozen wild boar roast at Paulina Meat Market. Still, I think that I, too, had made my point. So take that, wood-fired pizza! Move over, hand-made pasta! Your humble little sister polenta is ready to party, and man, does she look fabulous!

CINDERELLA MUSIC: "The Stepsisters' Lament"]