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|Yellow or white cornmeal, liquid (water, soup stock)|
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Polenta is cornmeal boiled into a porridge, and eaten directly or baked, fried or grilled. The term is of Italian origin, derived from the Latin for hulled and crushed grain (especially barley-meal). Maize was not cultivated in Europe until the early 16th century. It comes from the same base as "pollen".
As it is known today, polenta derives from earlier forms of grain mush (known as puls or pulmentum in Latin or more commonly as gruel or porridge), commonly eaten since Roman times. Before the introduction of corn from the New World in the 16th century, polenta was made with such starchy ingredients as farro, chestnut flour, millet, spelt, or chickpeas.
Historically, polenta served as a peasant food in North America and Europe. The reliance on maize, which lacks readily accessible niacin unless cooked with alkali to release it, as a staple caused outbreaks of pellagra throughout the American South and much of Europe until the 20th century. In the 1940s and 1950s, polenta was often eaten with salted anchovy or herring, sometimes topped with sauces.
Polenta is cooked by simmering in a water-based liquid, with other ingredients or eaten with them once cooked. It is often cooked in a huge copper pot known in Italian as a paiolo. Polenta is known to be a native dish of and to have originated from Friuli. Boiled polenta may be left to set, then baked or fried; leftover polenta may be used this way. Some Lombard polenta dishes are polenta taragna (which includes buckwheat flour), polenta uncia, polenta concia, polenta e gorgonzola, and missultin e polenta; all are cooked with various cheeses and butter, except the last one, which is cooked with fish from Lake Como. It can also be cooked with porcini mushrooms, rapini, or other vegetables or meats, such as small songbirds in the case of the Venetian and Lombard dish polenta e osei. In some areas of Veneto, it can be also made of white cornmeal (mais biancoperla, then called polenta bianca). In some areas of Piedmont, it can be also made of potatoes instead of cornmeal (polenta bianca as well).
The variety of cereal used is usually yellow maize, but buckwheat, white maize, or mixtures thereof may be used. Coarse grinds make a firm, coarse polenta; finer grinds make a creamy, soft polenta.
Polenta takes a long time to cook, typically simmering in four to five times its volume of watery liquid for about 45 minutes with almost constant stirring, necessary for even gelatinization of the starch. Some alternative cooking techniques are meant to speed up the process, or not to require supervision. Quick-cooking (cooked, instant) polenta is widely used and can be prepared in a few minutes; it is considered inferior to cooking polenta from unprocessed cornmeal and not ideal for eating unless baked or fried after simmering.
In his book Heat, Bill Buford talks about his experiences as a line cook in Mario Batali's Italian restaurant Babbo. Buford details the differences in taste between instant polenta and slow-cooked polenta, and describes a method of preparation that takes up to three hours, but does not require constant stirring: "polenta, for most of its cooking, is left unattended.... If you don't have to stir it all the time, you can cook it for hours—what does it matter, as long as you're nearby?" Cook's Illustrated magazine has described a method using a microwave oven that reduces cooking time to 12 minutes and requires only a single stirring to prepare 3½ cups of cooked polenta, and in March 2010 presented a stovetop, near stir-less method, using a pinch of baking soda (adding alkali), which replicates the traditional effect. Kyle Phillips suggested making it in a polenta maker or in a slow cooker.
Cooked polenta can be shaped into balls, patties, or sticks, and then fried in oil, baked, or grilled until golden brown; fried polenta is called crostini di polenta or polenta fritta. This type of polenta became particularly popular in southern Brazil following northern Italian immigration.
Similarity with other foods
In Europe, similar dishes are:
- In Albania, it is called harapash or kaçamak, but also barbalush or mëmëligë, depending on the region.
- In southern Austria, polenta is also eaten for breakfast (sweet polenta); the polenta pieces are either dipped in café au lait or served in a bowl with the café au lait poured on top of it. (This is a favourite of children.)
- In Bosnia and Herzegovina, it is called pura and less frequently polenta.
- In Bulgaria, the dish is called kachamak (качамак).
- The Corsican variety is called pulinta, and it is made with sweet chestnut flour rather than cornmeal.
- In Croatia, polenta is common on the Adriatic coast, where it is known as palenta or pura; in northwestern part of Croatia and around Zagreb, it is known as žganci. On the Adriatic Croatian coast, polenta goes together with fish or frog stew (brujet, brudet).
- In Hungary, it is known as puliszka and is usually made of coarse cornmeal. Traditionally, it is prepared with either sweetened milk or goat's milk cottage cheese, bacon or mushrooms.
- In Macedonia, it is called palenta or kačamak (качамак).
- In Montenegro, polenta is known as palenta on the Adriatic coast and as kačamak (качамак) in the northern parts of the country, where it is usually prepared with cheese.
- In Portugal, it is known as papas de milho, pirão or xerém and a similar dish on Madeira when fried, it is known as Milho Frito.
- The Romanian and Moldavian variety is called mămăligă; this word is also borrowed into the Russian (Мамалыга, but also known as кукурузная каша).
- In Serbia, it is called kačamak (качамак) or palenta.
- In Slovenia, it is also known as polenta. Polenta used to be eaten mainly in the Slovenian Littoral, while in central and eastern Slovenia, it was replaced by the buckwheat žganci, then almost unknown in the western part of the country.
- In Turkey, kuymak or muhlama is common, especially in the Black Sea Region. While kuymak/muhlama is made with cornmeal, cheese and butter, a coarse, almost bulgur size version of broken (or ground) dried maize is used to prepare "çakıldak", a kind of dolma or sarma made with kale leaves, especially in the central-eastern Black Sea Region provinces of Samsun, Ordu and around.
North and South America
Polenta is very similar to mush, sometimes called coosh, a dish of boiled cornmeal which is also often sliced and fried, but which is often eaten with sweet toppings such as maple syrup. A common dish in the cuisine of the Southern United States is grits, with the difference that grits are usually made from cooked, coarsely ground, alkali-treated (nixtamalized) kernels (ground hominy).
The Brazilian variety is also known as angu. Originally made by Native Americans, it is a kind of polenta without salt or any kind of oil. Nowadays "Italian" polenta is much more common at Brazilian tables, especially in the southern and southeastern regions (which have high numbers of Italian immigrants), although some people still call it angu.
In the Caribbean, similar dishes are:
- coo-coo (Trinidad and Tobago)
- cou-cou (Barbados)
- funchi (Curaçao and Aruba)
- funjie (Antigua and Barbuda)
- fungi (Virgin Islands)
- funche (Puerto Rico)
- mayi moulin (Haiti)
- turn cornmeal/dokunoo (Jamaica)
In Africa, similar dishes are:
- In Egypt - asa
- In Somalia - mishaari
- In Mauritius - polenta is commonly used to make poudine maïs.
- In South Africa, cornmeal mush is a staple food called mealie pap; elsewhere in southern Africa it is called phutu (pap) or is'tshwala. It is similar to polenta, but most often is not as dense.
- In Zimbabwe - sadza
- In Botswana - phaletshe
- In Zambia - nshima
- In Namibia - pap
- In northern Angola, it is known as funge, an is the probable source of names for the dish in a number of Caribbean countries, destination of slaves from Angola and elsewhere along the West Coast.
- In Kenya and Tanzania, a similar dish called ugali or sima is named from the Swahili.
- In West and Central Africa, fufu, a starch-based food, may also be made from maize meal.
- In Nigeria, it is called tuwo. It can be made from rice,maize,sorghum(guinea corn),tef or wheat.
In India, particularly in Maharashtra it is called Makyacha Kees. Also in Rajasthan, it is called kheech, served hot with ghee during winter months. All leftovers are sun dried into papadums called kheechla.
- OED 2nd ed.: a. maize flour, especially as used in Italian cookery. b. A paste or dough made from such meal, a dish made with this.
- Maydica 51 (2006): 281-291, MORE ON THE INTRODUCTION OF TEMPERATE MAIZE INTO EUROPE: LARGE-SCALE BULK SSR GENOTYPING AND NEW HISTORICAL ELEMENTS, P. Dubreuil et al.
- Zeldes, Leah A. (2010-11-03). "Eat this! Polenta, a universal peasant food". Dining Chicago. Chicago's Restaurant & Entertainment Guide, Inc. Retrieved 2011-05-18.
- Mangia Bene Pasta: How to cook polenta
- Buford, Bill (2006). Heat. New York: Alfred A. Knopf. p. 150. ISBN 1-4000-4120-1.
- Kimball, Christopher; Yanagihara, Dawn (January 1998). "The Microwave Chronicles". Cook's Illustrated: 11.
- Kimball, Christopher (March 2010). "Creamy Parmesan Polenta". Cook's Illustrated.
- Discussion of Cook's Illustrated article, with detail, available online
- Kyle Phillips. "Polenta: Making it at Home". Retrieved 28 January 2007.
- Giorgio V. Brandolini, Storia e gastronomia del mais e della patata nella Bergamasca, Orizzonte Terra, Bergamo, 2007. 32 pages.
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