Warm hugs and winter polenta
It was clever of me to choose a career that has me running all over the place or standing over a hot stove. I am always seen wearing a cardigan (or two), over at least one shirt, at any given time of the year. In Vancouver, it was between -2 and -12°C this week, so we have to stop being in denial: Winter is here. Put those cargo shorts away, already.
One day in the middle of the cold snap, I was starving and in dire straits: All of my meat was frozen, I had no vegetables that weren't starches, it was too bleeping cold to go outside for a grocery trip, and my kitchen had condiments, cheeses, and dry goods spilling out the wazoo.
The solution: one of my all-time favourite foods, which at first glance is unassuming, but can take people by surprise when done well.
Dishes that are cooked with love and patience, that make people feel like they're wrapped up in a giant hug, are the ones that I yearn to tackle. Feeding hungry people is one of the best ways to spread joy, plain and simple. It's my goal to one day cook like a Grandma from many different countries, and Italy is at the top of my list. Polenta, to me, is one of those foods that is like the culinary equivalent of pajamas. Sexy, luxurious, tailored, Italian pajamas.
I know some people who think that they hate polenta, or will not like it, because of bad experiences. This means that they probably had the stuff in the tube (don't do it!), or are reluctant to try it because they think that pasty corn mush is nothing special, or actually sounds revolting. Every time I've served it, though, reactions are usually in the realm of "Holy, mama.That was delicious."
This post is inspired by northern Italy, which is mountainous and cold. This is probably why that region's cooking is a lot richer and heavier than its southern counterpart. Hearty and filling, today's recipe is perfect as a side, or even as breakfast. If you like, go vegetarian and use butter instead of saved bacon fat, and veggie or mushroom stock instead of chicken.
Cold Weather Polenta
Prep time: 5 minutes
Cook time: 30 minutes
4 tbsp bacon fat
1 medium onion, diced
1 small pinch salt
4 cloves garlic, chopped
1 generous pinch chopped fresh rosemary or 1 small pinch dried rosemary, crumbled
1 cup cornmeal
1 pinch chili pepper flakes
3 1/2 cups low-sodium chicken stock
1 cup whipping cream or milk (2% or higher)
1/4 cup grated parmigiano Reggiano or pecorino Romano cheese
Optional: 1 tsp capers, 1 tbsp sun dried tomato oil, shredded spinach, large chunks of bacon (no saved fat needed then)
Warm up stock and cream in a pot. In a separate, deep-sided pan, sauté the onions in the fat with salt over medium heat until softened and browned, about 5 minutes. Add garlic, corn, rosemary, and chili flakes, and stir. Let heat for a minute, stir, and add stock and cream.
Bring to a simmer, stirring frequently, and turn heat down to LOW, continuing to stir as the polenta bubbles away and thickens.
The polenta is ready when the mixture is thick and creamy, and the cornmeal doesn't feel gritty anymore. Stir in grated cheese, then season to taste. Be very careful to let it cool off for a minute before tasting. Otherwise, you will definitely burn your mouth.
It may now be served as-is (garnish with fresh basil or more cheese), poured into muffin tins for individually-sized portions, or cooled and cut before frying or baking/frying for a little Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives action. The squares were cut and baked in a metal non-stick pan, no greasing necessary.