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Polenta: The Comfort Food of Northern Italy


There’s a saying in Italy that showcases the significance of polenta: La polenta è utile per quattro cose: serve da minestra, serve da pane, sazia, e scalda le mani, " Polenta is good for four things: to make soup, to make bread, to fill you up, and to warm your hands.”


Polenta is traditionally served family-style from a big platter or wooden board, with guests serving themselves at the table. It is traditionally prepared in a paiolo, a huge copper pan tapered at the bottom and stirred with a long wooden paddle called a tarai. Polenta, or slow-cooked ground maize, is used in a variety of dishes as a main or side dish. It can be eaten plain with butter and cheese or with a sauce on top. It's usually spread out to dry a little before being baked, fried, or grilled. In the Ca' Rezzonico museum in Venice, there's a wonderful painting by Pietro Longhi from 1740 shows freshly cooked polenta being spread out to dry on a linen towel.


In the north region of Italy, rice and polenta is the preferred meal. Polenta is so widespread that sometimes northern Italians are called polentoni, “polenta-eaters.”


History

The origins dates back to the ancient Roman puls—porridge dishes made from ground barley, fava beans, spelt, rye or buckwheat. Corn, a New World food, was first planted in Italy in the 1500s.


Variations

Polenta is extremely versatile. Polenta concia – cornmeal cooked with butter and cheese and a specialty of Valle d’Aosta – is very common, and can be eaten as a first course .


Polenta can be used to make desserts such as pinza, a Veneto cornmeal and fruit cake; torta nicolotta, an aromatic cake seasoned with grappa and fennel seeds traditionally made with leftover polenta; and brustengolo, an apple-walnut polenta pudding popular in Umbria, especially in the Perugia province.


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