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.
Continue to cook, stirring frequently, until the grains of corn have swelled and are tender. It can take from 20 to 60 minutes, depending on the age and size of the ground corn.
Be sure to reach all the way down to the bottom of the pan while stirring and add water, about a quarter of a cup at a time, if the mixture seems too thick.
When the polenta is fully tender, stir in the butter, squash, chipotle powder, and several turns of black pepper. Stir in the cheese, taste, and correct for salt.
Working quickly, rinse the inside of a 9-inch square baking dish or tart pan with water and tip the polenta into it. Jostle the dish or pan to distribute the polenta evenly. Cover and set aside for 20 minutes.
Set the chard on a clean work surface and cut the leaves into 2-inch wide pieces crosswise; cut the stems into small dice.
Pour the olive oil into a medium sauté pan set over medium heat, add the chard, and cook, turning now and then, until it wilts, about 2 to 3 minutes. Continue to cook another couple of minutes, until it is tender. Add the garlic and lemon zest and season with salt. Remove from the heat.
To serve, cut the polenta into large squares and set in a soup plate. Top with chard and enjoy right away.
Polenta is very forgiving and can stay warm or hot for hours without deteriorating in either flavor or texture. Some polenta — such as that from Tierra Vegetables and Calistoga’s Bale Grist Mill — benefit from lengthy cooking, as the individual grains continue to swell. For this recipe, you’ll need a 6-quart slow cooker.
Creamy Polenta Nera for a Crowd
Serves 12 to 20
12 cups boiling water
1 pound polenta (coarse-ground cornmeal)
1/4- 1/2 cup buckwheat flour
— Kosher salt
1/2 cup (1 stick, 4 ounces) butter, preferably local
2 cups puréed winter squash
1 teaspoon chipotle powder
2 tablespoons minced fresh sage
1 pound Vella Mezzo Secco, Monterey Jack or similar cheese, grated
Pour half the boiling water into a 6-quart slow cooker set on high. Add the polenta, buckwheat flour,and 2 tablespoons of salt and whisk thoroughly. Add the remaining boiling water and whisk again.
Continue to stir frequently until the water returns to a boil. Once it does, it will begin to thicken, as the grains of corn absorb water. Once the mixture is nearly uniform, without water sitting above the polenta, change the setting to “low,” cover, and stir every 20 or 30 minutes until the mixture is quite creamy.
This will take a few hours and you needn’t watch it too closely. Just be sure to check often enough that you can add more water if it begins to be too thick. When done, it should be the texture of a loose but not runny porridge.
About an hour before serving the polenta, add the butter, squash, chipotle powder, sage and cheese and stir well. Thin with water if needed to achieve a pleasing texture that is neither too thick nor too thin. Taste and correct for salt and pepper.
Enjoy as a side dish or see serving suggestions below.
Top with beans that have been cooked simply with just a bay leaf and seasoned with only salt and pepper.
Top with beef stew, braised lamb shanks, or chicken legs and thighs braised in tomato sauce.
Top with a simple mushroom ragout, using maitake (Hen of the Woods) or oyster mushrooms.
Top each serving with grilled and sliced skirt steak, thinly sliced, and garnish with toasted pumpkin seeds and fresh minced sage.
Top with roasted vegetables and grated cheese.
Serve with a simple winter squash sauce. To make the sauce, put about a cup of winter squash purée into a saucepan, add 1 1/2 cups of homemade chicken stock or water and season with salt, pepper, and chipotle powder or some other dried ground chile.
Taste, correct for salt, pepper, and heat. Add a tablespoon of minced fresh sage and serve hot.
Serve with just the polenta or over polenta and beans.
Michele Anna Jordan is the author of 24 books to date, including Polenta (Broadway Books, 1997). Email her at email@example.com.