Such a creamy, dreamy bed polenta makes that it almost seems easier to suggest what not to nestle atop it than it does what to nestle atop it.
But if I did that, then I wouldn't be in the business of making you hungry and that just happens to be a business I very much like being in these days.
Differing from grits only in their origin and how much liquid is added, polenta can be eaten soft from the pot (dotted with butter and Parmigiano and truffles?), or firm and then grilled (perched next to a mixture of pancetta, cannellini beans, and bitter greens?), baked (layered lasagne-style with eggplant and sheep's milk ricotta?), or fried (cut into sticks and served with homemade marinara for dipping?).
It's the peasant-born, sauce-mopping, ragù-absorbing bread of Northern Italy.
And since one evening's soft polenta (heaped with wine-braised wild mushrooms and sausage?) can transform into tomorrow morning's, or even several mornings after's, fried polenta (sandwiched with bacon and eggs and a slather of Sriracha or marmalade depending on which side of the sweet and salty spectrum you fall?), you'll think you've happened upon a pot of gold.
Do be forewarned though: According to the old Italian nonnas tales, polenta's only to be stirred in one direction or else you'll find yourself at the mercy of terrible luck, which, in their eyes means never getting married or having babies.
Ohh mio dio!
I say tempt the fates and then lie in this delicious bed you've made--alone or with company.
Basic Parmigiano Polenta
Serves 6 to 8
- 6 cups water, stock, or a combination of the two
- 2 tsp. salt
- 2 cups polenta (not the instant kind)
- 3 Tbsp. unsalted butter
- freshly-ground pepper
- 3/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano, finely grated
Add the water and/or stock and salt to a large, deep pot set over high heat and bring to a boil.
Shower the polenta into the pot in a thin, hypnotizing stream, stirring with a wooden spoon in the same direction (because Nonna's watching).
Reduce the heat and simmer gently, stirring often and always in the same direction to continue warding off spinsterhood (and to keep the mixture from sticking). Grab a lid to use as a shield anytime the mixture gurgles up and erupts. Facial scarring won't do a thing to help your cause. Keep stirring until very thick, about 30 minutes.
Off the heat, stir in the butter and a 1/2 cup of the cheese. Serve soft, straight from the pot, or else pour the polenta into a shallow, oiled pan and let it set for 10 minutes.
Decorate with freshly-ground pepper and the remaining 1/4 cup of cheese and cut into wedges.
For a flashier display, save the pepper and cheese step until after you've inverted the pan onto a big wooden board set in the center of the table. Slice the polenta with a taut two-foot-long piece of string if you want to be molto autentico.