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David Lissner
for restaurants

Eat this! Polenta, a universal peasant food

Duke's polenta cake.

Duke's polenta cake.

What it is: Polenta is cornmeal porridge, a very simple dish made by stirring cornmeal and salt into simmering water. It’s also often made into fried cakes. Historically, polenta was peasant food — cheap and filling.

Where it comes from: Today, polenta is commonly served throughout Northern Italy in lieu of pasta. Before the arrival of maize in Italy, the dish was made from a relative of wheat called farro, millet, spelt, chestnuts or chickpeas, and later from buckwheat.

In ancient times, the grains were mixed with water and the resulting paste cooked on a heated stone. After the discovery of the New World, in the 15th or 16th century, the dish started to be made with cornmeal.

It’s unclear just how polenta spread, but variants are found throughout Europe, notably in Romania, where it’s called mamaliga. In Poland, it’s mamalyga, in Hungary, puliszka, in Turkey, muhlama, in Bulgaria, kachamak, and in Bosnia, pura.

It’s also unclear if the “cornmeal mush” of colonial America owes anything to the Italian dish. Certainly Native Americans were cooking with cornmeal well before Columbus arrived, and it was they who taught the pioneers its uses. Some say, however, that cornmeal mush began with Scottish and Irish settlers, accustomed to making oatmeal porridge, who adapted that dish to native corn.

The Minutemen shared cold cornmeal mush in 1775 before going off to meet the British in Concord. Cornmeal mush was also a mainstay for Confederate soldiers. Sometimes called “coosh,” it remains popular in the South.

Zak Dolezal

Zak Dolezal

What to do with it: Polenta can be served freshly made, mounded on a plate and topped or layered with anything you like. Tomato sauce is traditional in Northern Italy. Romanians like to use cheese and sour cream. In Moldava, they add garlic and oil. Made with spices, milk and molasses, cornmeal mush becomes “hasty pudding” or “Indian pudding,” an early American staple, still popular in New England. Maple syrup works as well.

Or it can be left to firm up, then sliced and baked or fried into crispy cakes, as Chef Zak Dolezal does at Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen in Crystal Lake. Dolezal makes polenta cakes with goat cheese and serves them as a vegetarian item with a green salad mixed with julienned apples, candied pecans and brown-butter sage vinaigrette.

“I reach out to friends of mine who are vegetarians to create our vegetarian dishes,” he says. “Just because you’re a vegetarian does not mean you want a plate of vegetables, so I try to get creative.

“Even though we are not an Italian restaurant, I feel that we have adopted their approach to cooking: Cook what’s available and seasonal. Thus, I feel the Italian name is quite appropriate to theme of our restaurant — organic, local, sandwiches and comfort food.”

Traditionally, polenta is made by slowly stirring finely ground cornmeal into barely simmering water and then stirring constantly for 45 minutes or so. (Marcella Hazan covers the pan to cut down on the stirring a bit.) You can also make it in the oven or the microwave. Dolezal shortcuts the process by starting with instant polenta, which has been parcooked.

Duke’s Alehouse and Kitchen’s pan-seared polenta cake with goat cheese
Chef Zak Dolezal

1 cup instant polenta
2-1/2 cups whole milk
1 teaspoon salt
Favorite herbs (optional)
3 to 4 ounces crumbled goat cheese
Olive oil for frying

Bring the milk to a simmer and slowly pour in the instant polenta through your fingers to prevent clumping. Whisk in the salt and any herbs of your choice. Cook, whisking the polenta until thick and creamy.

Pour the hot polenta into a flat-bottomed dish or pan so that the polenta rises about an inch high. Cover with waxed paper and put into refigerator until slightly chilled, but malleable. After partially chilled, stir in the crumbled goat cheese. Flatten polenta with a spatula and cover with waxed paper again. Refrigerate until completely chilled.

Cut into squares or triangles and dust lightly with flour. Heat a nonstick skillet over medium heat. Once hot add a few drops of olive oil and slowly brown both sides of polenta. (If the polenta is thick you may want to put it in the oven to finish cooking.) 4 servings.

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