When I think of comfort food Italian style, I think of polenta – and this time of year is the perfect time for polenta! Not only because of the cold temperatures but because many of us have likely just finished making our homemade sausage. The two go hand-in-hand in this recipe from my parents’ hometown back in Italy.
I recall growing up, that making polenta was really an occasion to gather with family and friends. Most of us had these large wooden boards that our moms and nonnas would use to serve up the vast quantity of polenta they would make! It was a sight to behold. Dad tells us stories growing up with six siblings. Dinner would be placed down the center of the table served in these wooden boards. Everyone would jostle for their place around the table to make sure they got their portion of nourishment after long days of working in the fields. Oh how times have changed. Such a flood of emotions overtake me to hear of the struggles of our parents and grandparents in their early years.
Corn made its way to Europe after the discovery of the ‘new world’. Before that polenta in Italy was made from old world grains such as barley, wheat, chestnut flour, or chickpeas. The word itself is Latin for “pearled grain”. Once corn was introduced it gained popularity quickly and has been synonymous with polenta ever since. It is often referred to as “Italian grits’. It is especially popular in northern and central Italy, so much so, that a common nickname for northern Italians is ‘Polentoni’ – literally polenta eaters!
As is the case with many modern popular dishes, polenta originated as a peasant dish. Corn was easy to grow, store, and cook and has remained the grain of choice for polenta dishes world wide. We have learned through our time at Nonna’s Way, that nonnas are very particular about how certain dishes are made and polenta is definitely one of those recipes! Today we are sharing a recipe from my parent’s hometown in Frosinone, Italy where a classic way to eat polenta is topped with tomato sauce, beans, and sausage.
It is important to heat the water but not allow it to boil when adding the corn flour/meal because it will clump! Adding the mixture to the water slowly is also critical. Cooking polenta takes a bit of time and some elbow grease for the almost constant stirring but the effort and time is so worth it!
Polenta is also enjoyed without the sauce, beans and sausage by letting it cool and harden. Once cooled polenta becomes hard enough to slice. Other popular ways to enjoy it is to grill, fry, or bake slices of cooled polenta and then top with cheeses, meat and gravy, vinaigrettes, salsa, fried mushrooms, or anything else you can think of! We would love to hear your family’s variation of polenta.
- 6 cups water
- Salt to taste
- 1 ½ cups corn flour
- ½ cup corn meal
- Simmering pasta sauce
- 1 cup navy beans, cooked and heated through
- 1 pound sausage meat browned (casing removed)
- In a separate pot, add 1-2 ladles of sauce to 1 heaping cup of cooked and heated navy beans. Allow to simmer together over low heat for about 10 minutes. Do not allow the beans to overcook or they will be mushy.
- In a separate pot, add 2 scoops of heated sauce to the browned sausage meat and allow to simmer together over low heat while the polenta is being prepared.
- In a bowl, mix the corn meal and corn flour together until well combined.
- Place water in a large stock pot. Salt the water to taste.
- Heat the water on medium heat but do not allow it come to a boil.
- Begin adding the the corn flour/meal mixture to the water very slowly a little at a time while whisking continuously. Once all the flour/meal has been added and whisked for about 4-5 minutes, you can turn up the heat slightly.
- Continue to cook and whisk and once it starts to bubble turn the heat back to medium. Switch to a wooden spoon for stirring.
- Continue to cook for another 15-20 minutes. Nonna says a spoon should be able to stand in the polenta to know when it is done!
- At this point, taste the polenta to be sure the flour taste is gone. Cook a little longer if necessary.
- In case the polenta becomes too thick, you can add a little hot water while stirring.
- Add the beans/sauce mixture to the polenta. Stir and allow to cook altogether for a couple of minutes to combine well.
- In the bottom of a large serving dish, spread a couple of scoops of hot tomato sauce.
- Carefully, pour the polenta over the sauce.
- Cover the top of the polenta with the sausage/tomato sauce mixture.
- With the wooden spoon, make a some “dents” in the top of the polenta to allow the sauce to soak in.
- Let it sit for a few minutes before serving to allow it to set.
- Have parmesan cheese and extra hot tomato sauce on the side for those that would like to add!