On March 17, 1861, Vittorio Emanuele II (hitherto King of Sardinia) was proclaimed King of Italy by the first Italian Parliament. On March 17, 2011, Italy turns 150. I don't expect flags will be displayed from windows and balconies: Italians reserve that for the national soccer team's big games.
I choose to celebrate Italy's sesquicentennial with polenta. I actually wrote a column on polenta four years ago, where I shared my mother's recipe ("Polenta: Variations on a Theme" Table Talk, March 1, 2007). These days, I am making another type of polenta.
First, some background. When I moved from my hometown of Perugia, in central Italy, to Milan at age 21, I knew I was entering solid polenta-land. In fact, polentoni (polenta eaters) is the nickname given to northern Italians by southern Italians. One of my colleagues at work was from Veneto, the region in northeast Italy around Venice and Verona. The interjection she frequently uttered was unequivocal proof of her origins: "Santa polenta!" she would exclaim to express anything ranging from surprise to impatience to urgency. My husband likes to say that while smiling over a plate of steaming polenta.
At home in Perugia, we ate polenta as a one-dish meal topped with a rich tomato and pork meat sauce, which included sausages. Golden polenta and deep red sauce were indissolubly paired in the world where I grew up. My first experience outside the box occurred in Milan, when I had sauce-less polenta served as a side dish to a rabbit stew with mushrooms. A few months later, during ski season, I visited Valtellina, a beautiful Alpine valley northeast of Milan. My efforts on the ski front were all for naught, but some of the foods I ate left a lasting impression on me, like those made using farina di grano saraceno (buckwheat flour).
Buckwheat production in Valtellina dates back to the 1600s and buckwheat flour appears in traditional dishes like pizzoccheri (short tagliatelle cooked together with potatoes and Savoy cabbage or Swiss chard, then layered with cheese and dressed with butter), sciatt (cheese-filled fritters) and polenta taragna (more on that below). Cultivation of buckwheat in Valtellina has decreased in recent years, so much so that Slow Food has established a Presidium to help revitalize it. (Nowadays, most of the buckwheat milled and consumed in Italy is imported from China.)
Buckwheat flour is gray (with black specks from the hulls), so the polenta made with it is grayish. In polenta taragna, buckwheat flour is mixed with some cornmeal. The word taragna does not refer to an ingredient, but to the tarai or tarel, the wooden implement traditionally used to stir the polenta while it was cooking in a copper pot hung inside the fireplace.
The buckwheat flour and cornmeal received as part of my grain share from Shakefork Community Farm CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) prompted me to experiment with a personal, locally grown version of polenta taragna. For this variation on the polenta theme, I use half a cup of cornmeal (sifted first using a mesh colander, then measured), half a cup of buckwheat flour and four cups of water. Pour the cold water into a saucepan and add a bit of salt. Slowly add the cornmeal and then the buckwheat flour in a thin stream, while whisking to mix. The pan then goes over medium heat. As soon as the water reaches the boiling point, turn the heat down to low. Keep stirring with the whisk until the polenta becomes thick, at which point you may want to switch to a wooden spoon as stirring implement. Cook the polenta for at least 50 minutes (I usually cook it a few minutes longer). Stir often to prevent the polenta from sticking to the bottom of the pan and to avoid the build-up of steam that results in small volcanic explosions.
Traditional polenta taragna includes butter and local cheese. I omit the butter, preferring a lighter dish, but I do add cheese, experimenting with different ones. Depending on the consistency of the cheese I choose, I cut it into small pieces or grate it, sometimes mixing two different kinds. I don't usually measure the cheese, but the last time I made this polenta, I paid attention and I can report that I added 2 oz of aged Asiago. The cheese should go in at the end of the cooking time. Stir to incorporate it, then serve immediately. If using cheese cut into small pieces, the bits that don't melt completely will make for a pleasant tasting experience.
My take on polenta taragna works nicely as a side dish to a variety of vegetarian and meat entrées. Most recently, I used it to accompany chicken with Catalan picada, a recipe from the magazine Food & Wine (if you are interested, more details are available on my food blog (briciole.typepad.com). When I cook polenta for our binary household, I always have leftovers, which I spoon into a square container: this makes it easy to cut the cold polenta into even-sized slices. When I want to use it, I spray a cast-iron skillet with olive oil, and when it is warm, cook the polenta slices on both sides. If done properly, they will have a thin crust that adds to the pleasure. And if the crust sticks to the skillet, it will come off shortly afterwards and provide you with a crispy treat.
A final note regarding the pizzoccheri mentioned earlier: Patricia of the restaurant La Trattoria in Arcata makes them regularly from fall into early spring, subject to the availability of locally grown ingredients including cabbage, potatoes, and the buckwheat flour mentioned above.
Buckwheat Flour Polenta
1/2 cup sifted Shakefork Community Farm cornmeal
1/2 cup Shakefork Community Farm buckwheat flour
4 cups cold water
a bit of salt
cheese of choice, to taste, cut into small pieces or grated
Pour water into saucepan and add salt.
Slowly add cornmeal and buckwheat flour, whisking to mix.
Bring to a boil on medium heat.
Reduce heat to low.
Continue stirring with the whisk until the polenta becomes thick, then stir often with a wooden spoon.
Cook for at least 50 minutes.
Add cheese of choice and stir to incorporate.