Long before corn made it to Europe, where it was embraced by Italians, there were many savory porridges made with millet, chestnut flour, roasted barley, farro, spelt, and other ground grains. Typically, these porridges were fortified with milk, cream, cheese, meats and meat sauces.
Polenta made with just buckwheat flour was called “polenta nera,” as it has the color of a grey winter sky. Cooked in chicken stock, it produces a very dense porridge that sets up quickly; it is best served with mushrooms, chards and other greens, and other earthy foods such as root vegetables and winter squash.
Today, polenta nera also refers to polenta to which a small amount of buckwheat flour has been adding. It has a lighter, creamier texture, a slightly earthy flavor, and welcomes a wide range of other foods. It makes an excellent accompaniment to any holiday dinner and has the added benefit of being naturally gluten free.
When buying polenta, look for organic, coarse-ground cornmeal; the bigger the grains, the better. Locally, you’ll find it at Tierra Vegetables and, in Calistoga, at the Bale Grist Mill, which is open only on weekends. Do not, please, use instant polenta or pre-cooked polenta. Both products lack the beautiful flavor of freshly cooked polenta and both have an unpleasant texture. They are also more expensive than polenta should be and contain additives we don’t need.
Polenta is a humble food. It is inexpensive, easy to prepare, forgiving, delicious,and filling, which is just what we need this November.
Here you have a wonderful and simple dinner for a stormy weeknight. You can, if you like, make the polenta the day before, set a sheet of oiled parchment on top of it, and refrigerate it. Reheat it in the oven for about 30 minutes before serving. This polenta can also be spread on a baking sheet, covered with parchment, and allowed to set up over night. The next day, cut it into cubes, toss it with minced onions, celery, and pancetta, and use it as stuffing for roasted game hens, chicken, or turkey.
Polenta Nera with Winter Squash and Chard
Serves 4 to 6
3/4 cup polenta (coarse-ground cornmeal)
2 tablespoons buckwheat flour
— Kosher salt
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup cooked winter squash, mashed or puréed, see Note below
1/4 teaspoon chipotle powder
— Black pepper in a mill
3 ounces (3/4 cup, grated) Vella Mezzo Secco or similar cheese
1 bunch chard, trimmed
2 tablespoon olive oil
1 garlic clove, crushed and minced or pressed
— Zest of 1 lemon
Put the polenta and buckwheat flour into a small bowl and add about a cup of water, just enough to moisten the ingredients. Stir until smooth.
Pour 3 cups of water into a medium saucepan set over high heat, add a generous tablespoon of salt, and bring to a boil. When the water reaches a rolling boil, slowly whisk in the moistened mixture, stirring with a whisk in a single direction until fully incorporated. Lower the heat and continue to simmer until the mixture begins to thicken.