POLENTA WITH PANCETTA, SHAVED ASPARAGUS AND AGED GOUDA

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-1

Last week Jody and I were treated to a delicious dish of broiled polenta with mushrooms at the home of  friends and we immediately began thinking about a spring variation.  Our first impulse, topping it with chicory and fava beans, didn’t work out because fresh favas – or a good substitute – aren’t in stores yet.  We went with what was available and tasty, to wit, Polenta with Pancetta, Shaved Asparagus and Aged Gouda.

Italy has a history of porridges made from various starchy components like farro, spelt, millet and even chickpeas dating back to antiquity, but cornmeal polenta originates in the early 16th century, when northern Italian landowners began growing the profitable New World crop of “maize,” and forcing their peasant workforce to subsist on cornmeal.  Until then the preferred alternative was buckwheat, introduced to Sicily by the Saracens around the turn of the first millenium.  Italians still call buckwheat grano sarceno and buckwheat polenta remains a popular dish in Tuscany.   

WARNING: There’s a sad and fascinating tale associated with cornmeal polenta.  If you Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-5want to keep this strictly on a what’s-for-dinner-dear basis skip the next three paragraphs.

Often omitted in the history of polenta’s migration from rustic table to fine dining are the tragic consequences it bore for northern Italy’s rural poor.  Shortly after the switch from buckwheat to cornmeal, a new disease appeared among the peasantry.  The malady, characterized by lesions on areas of exposed skin, became known as pellagra, from the Italian pelle “skin” and agra “sour.”  Pellagra remained endemic in northern Italy for the next three and half centuries.

In the American South, pellagra grew to epidemic proportions in the first half of the 20th century.  The overwhelming majority of the 3 million cases diagnosed between 1906 and 1938 were, as in Italy, the rural poor living on their own version of polenta – cornmeal mush – often with little else to supplement it.  Eventually researchers determined that one of the principle causes of pellagra is a deficiency of niacin, or vitamin B3.  The niacin in corn is nutritionally unavailable, that is, it remains locked inside the corn throughout digestion.  One of the clues to figuring out the etiology of pellagra was the absence of the disease among Native Americans who also depended heavily on cornmeal in their diets.  What separated Native Americans from Italians and poor farm workers in the South, was the former’s practice of first treating their corn with lime, an alkali, usually by soaking it in limewater and hulling it before grinding.  This process, nixtamalization, makes the niacin nutritionally available in Native American cornmeal.  

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-12Although a few medical pioneers had the insight to make the connection between cornmeal, poverty, and a niacin deficit by 1915, the causality wasn’t accepted until just before the Second World War.  Ultimately the prevention of pellagra was relatively straightforward, if not always simple – fortifying people’s diets with niacin supplements.  

THE HAPPY NARRATIVE OF CORNMEAL COOKERY RESUMES HERE: Cornmeal polenta is ridiculously good with butter or cheese, and nearly as versatile as pasta or rice, with which it’s often compared.  The only downside is the time it takes to cook – forty minutes.  We don’t recommend “instant” polenta – it’s milled extremely fine in order to speed up the cooking time.  One of the pleasures of polenta is a satisfying granularity that saves the texture from being boring, a quality absent in the instant version.  Also, while regular polenta requires frequent stirring, that’s hardly the same as constant stirring.   You can do other stuff, like practice shaving asparagus or chopping scallions or green onions.

Tomatoes, mushrooms – basically anything that you put in pasta, can be used as topping or accompaniment to polenta.  In the winter, when we tend to eat such things, it can be a bravura side dish to braised meat, but once the weather warms up we seek lighter pairings.  A bit of pancetta adds flavor and crunch; shaved asparagus doesn’t need anything except a minute or two under the broiler to take the raw edge off; and Aged Gouda contributes a wonderful buttery, caramel note.  Enjoy (and take your vitamins).  Ken

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-2

POLENTA WITH PANCETTA, SHAVED ASPARAGUS AND AGED GOUDA

Ingredients:

  • Kosher salt
  • 1½ cups coarsely ground cornmeal (we like Bob’s Red Mill)
  • Freshly ground black pepper
  • 2 ounces grated Parmesan cheese
  • 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 teaspoon chopped fresh thyme leaves
  • 2½ tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
  • 4 ounces thinly sliced pancetta
  • 4 ounces grated aged gouda
  • 1½ pounds asparagus – probably more than you need, shaved into ribbons with a vegetable peeler to get 14 ounces of shavings (see Jody Notes)
  • 2-4 scallions, white and green part thinly sliced on the diagonal
  • ½ cup fresh herbs, coarsely chopped or snipped into sprigs–I used basil and chervil

Directions:

  1. In a heavy, medium-sized saucepan, bring 7 cups salted water to a boil over high heat.  Gradually whisk the cornmeal into the boiling water.  Bring back to a boil and then reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently, until very thick and shiny, about 40 minutes.  Regulate the heat as necessary so the mixture doesn’t boil over.  Add more water if it gets too thick.
  2. When the polenta is done, season with pepper and then stir in the Parmesan cheese, butter and thyme.  Taste and  season with salt if necessary
  3. Preheat the broiler.
  4. Smear an 18″ x 13″ shallow-sided baking sheet with 1 teaspoon olive oil.  Spread the polenta out into the pan.  Top with slices of pancetta.  Run the pan under the broiler and cook until the pancetta starts to crisp, about 4 minutes.
  5. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, toss the asparagus with salt, pepper, the scallions, grated Gouda and 1 tablespoon olive oil.  Spread evenly over the polenta.
  6. Return the pan to the broiler and cook 4 minutes or until the asparagus wilt and start to brown.
  7. Top with the fresh herbs and drizzle with the remaining oil.

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-3

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-10

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-11

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-20

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-24

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-25

Jody Notes:  

Butter appears in the photographs and I did put it in the polenta, but after tasting two different batches, I think it’s unnecessary and actually mutes the flavor of the cornmeal.  I’ll skip it next time.  The pancetta, olive oil and cheese contribute enough fat to satisfy any cravings.  

Many moons ago I discovered that the grassy flavor asparagus is a perfect match for Aged Gouda. If you want a more traditional combination go with Parmigiano Reggiano–it’s also delicious.  

Don’t snap the fibrous ends off the stalks of asparagus.  Use them as handles as you run a peeler down the length of the stalk, starting at the root end and finishing through the tip.  The top and bottom slices are composed of the tough exterior layer,  so I tend to discard them.  

Polenta with Pancetta, Asparagus and Shaved Gouda-26

Go ahead; click on something to see it with a little more detail.  Left and right arrow keys will move you through the photos.

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45 thoughts

  1. This sounds fab…but no broiler! Can I do in oven?
    And while I’m here, I’ve never got a reasonable not to mention authoritative answer to the burning question: what’s the difference between polenta and grits?
    Asparagus are just showing up in the market here in Paris. Wintery weather lasted so long that we are still knee deep in brussels sprouts (which I now actually can eat once they’re slathered in your dipping sauce, to which I’m addicted-I’m almost afraid to try the romesco!). But the last few days have seen rising temps, it’s finally April in Paris and cute little asparagus tips are rearing their little heads like in your great photo (you made it seem like they are looking at us defiantly -fantastic!)

    • Amy,
      Oh how I wish we were wandering up and down the aisles of the Bastille Market staring down the asparagus together. You must also being seeing morels.
      If you don’t have a broiler, use a hot hot oven. Polenta and Grits are essentially the same. It’s dried milled corn and the good stuff is stone ground from the whole grain. According to an Heirloom Grain Company Anson Mills, polenta is made from a hard flint corn and grits are made from softer dent corn. http://ansonmills.com/grain_notes/13 Here’s lots of info.
      The bike trip is on the Horizon! We have 10 people so far. We max out at 14. Can’t wait! xox J PS Roxanne says hi.

      [KEN: for a discussion of “grits,” “hominy grits” and polenta, see my response to Sharon below.]

    • Yes, the morel harvest has been huge this year , probably due to all the rain. Was it worth it? When you remark what a glory a few measly morels make of any sauce it makes you less grinchy about the umbrella that’s beginning to feel grafted to your hand…

  2. What a fantastic recipe. I also loved reading the history of how corn arrived in Italy and the problems that ensued! I really like polenta, and I received a package just this morning containing buckwheat polenta!

    • Hi, Darya–Thanks! At least now you know you’re nutritionally in good hands with the buckwheat polenta. I have to admit, I stumbled across the pellagra business by accident – I had no idea there was such a nutritional difference between corn and buckwheat meals. The story points up the problems with any diet that depends exclusively on a single foodstuff, usually the regime of someone who can’t afford more variety. On a cheerier note, our friend Amy says that asparagus have arrived chez vous. If you make this with buckwheat, send me a photo: garumfactory@gmail.com so I can link back to your blog. Ken

  3. This dish is a very elegant way to treat the soon to be seasonally available British asparagus. Really interesting info about the issue of polenta and pellagra, I wasn’t aware of that. Like the idea of using Gouda as a foil to the grassy fresh asparagus, delightful, and incredible photos as ever, puts me to shame, thanks, T

    • I wouldn’t say that–my photos would definitely benefit from a few more sheep. I can’t believe someone is actually behind us in asparagus season, then again, the asparagus we’re getting now isn’t from New England. A few more weeks for that. Do try the combination–I think you’ll like it. Ken

    • Gwynne–I don’t know what’s happening to WP. I wrote a reply to you and it seems to have disappeared. I’m glad you found the pellagra stuff interesting–I’m always of two minds about how much obscure information include. What might be endlessly fascinating to me is not necessarily so for readers. Jody thanked me for not going into advances in milling technology after the Romans that facilitated the production of cornmeal. :-) Ken

    • I’m glad you appreciated the pellagra info. I thought it was fascinating and heartbreaking. I seem to recall as a kid in rural Michigan in the 1950s Niacin drops being distributed in schools, presumably as a stopgap against this. Ken

  4. Stunning photos! As for the polenta I didn’t realise it’s the same as cornmeal. And I’ve been wondering about these grits I read about a lot on WP. As for buying it, that might prove to be difficult here. Although, I’ve seen it in block form as in already cooked – ouch, don’t think I’ll go there.

    • Thanks for the comment about the photos. Where are you? I assumed polenta would be available all over England, but that may be willful ignorance on my part. We sometimes order stuff from Bob’s Red Mill via their website. You’re right to stay away from the pre-cooked stuff. It’s not awful, just really really boring, although it’s stiff enough to grill, so if you did that and then buried it in wild mushrooms… Ken

      • Thanks for the info. Yes, I’m in SE England. Here, if the product doesn’t sell the store won’t stock it for long. I’ll have to check if it’s available as I really don’t remember eating polenta. Even though I’ve been to Italy a couple of times. Although, when there I’m usually stuffing my face with pizza! Never eat the stuff here.

    • I have no doubt it has already been written, and sits, neglected, on the library shelves between other overlooked exegeses like MILL ON THE FLOSSIA – Roman Grainaries from Etruria to Gaul, and CON(GEE)GATION – Gruel as Culinary Signifier. :) Thanks for the recipe and photo praise. Ken

  5. Asparagus, at least at the markets of late, has been good and thin – we have it almost always roasted in an oven pan with oil, salt and fresh thyme leaves. Had that last night with a Yukon gold, red bliss and baked cod. No leftovers! May have mentioned a year back, West Brookfield hosts an asparagus and garden festival every May on their lengthy town common and I have attended the last three years. A LONG haul from Brookline (though a reverse drive). Here’s the official site. This year the officials are “requiring” all vendors to have a green theme to whatever they choose to bring and market during the fair. We shall see. And a bit of historic lore right back atcha! (this excerpt from Wikipedia).

    West Brookfield was first settled in 1664 and was officially incorporated in 1848, splitting off from Brookfield.
    The town is believed to be the birthplace of asparagus in the New World. Diederik Leertouwer came to the United States in 1784 to promote trade between the Netherlands and New England. He later settled with his wife and daughter in West Brookfield where he carried out his duties as Consul and lived here between the years 1794 and 1798. At that time West Brookfield had a population greater than Worcester and was being considered for the county seat. Local legend has it that Diederik Leertouwer imported asparagus from his homeland and was the first to plant it in this area. This fact was forgotten until it was discovered in an old cookbook. Wild asparagus still grows in this area today. Leertouwer died here and is buried in the Old Indian Cemetery on Cottage Street in West Brookfield.[1]
    http://asparagusfestival.blogspot.com/

  6. David! Thank you for coming out of the shadows. Always good to hear the voice of another lover of unusual culinary history. Brookfield, home to asparagus in the New World–who knew? I may have to figure out how to get out there for the asparagus festival in May. Thanks for all the info. Ken

  7. I always believed grits were ground from corn treated with lime, hence the old term hominy grits. Or are they a distinct kind of grits?

    Wiki, not necessarily definitive, seems to back me up.

    And as an ex-pat Texan [who never saw a fresh asparagus until I moved to the E Coast in the 70s], there is little more satisfying than cold leftover grits sliced and warmed in butter or olive oil, topped with heated leftover chili. Definitely a cultural mongrel, but wonderful.

    • Sharon–As far as I know, grits are made from both hominy – “hominy grits” – and from plain cracked corn – “grits.” This is obviously confusing since hominy grits have to be made from hominy, but many people also use “grits” as shorthand for “hominy grits.” As a little cultural reifier (but hardly proof), reviewers of the grits sold by Amazon.com make a clear distinction between the two (hominy grits are much preferred over plain grits). That suggests to me that some processors sell grits made from corn that has not undergone the process to turn it into hominy.

      That still doesn’t nail it down.

      I recently came across a thread on the Rancho Gordo website discussing nixtamalization, grits and polenta. Several of the participants believe, as you suggested, that ALL grits were made from hominy.

      (http://ranchogordo.typepad.com/rancho_gordo_experiments_/2011/09/grits-polenta-mush-hominyexplain-the-differences-to-me-.html?cid=6a00d83451fd1569e2015391e257e5970b#comment-6a00d83451fd1569e2015391e257e5970b)

      However, one participant, a self-identified Southerner with an interest in agricultural history, gives a more nuanced story. To wit, that all grits were made from hominy up until the Civil War. After the Civil War, grits began being ground without first undergoing the nixtamalization process as a cost-savings measure, and that caused the consequent rise in pellagra.

      Once pellagra was understood, some states began passing laws that said all grits had to come from hominy. Additional steps of fortifying white flour and some meals with niacin were also taken. Finally, general economic improvements, enabling a broader diet (presumably including other niacin-rich foods) helped alleviate the problem.

      I realize the narrative above has some very large gaps as regards how things stand today. I don’t know whether, for example, grits producers have to clearly state whether or not their product is made from hominy. I’m also beginning to wonder whether Italian cornmeal sold for polenta has been nixtamalized.

      Clearly a discussion with an agricultural historian and a trip to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard are in order. I’ll keep you posted as more facts come to light.

      Thanks for the question.

      Ken

  8. Sharon–As far as I know, grits are made from both hominy – “hominy grits” – and from plain cracked corn – “grits.” This is obviously confusing since hominy grits have to made from hominy, but many people also use “grits” as shorthand for “hominy grits.” As a little cultural reifier (but hardly proof), reviewers of the grits sold by Amazon.com make a clear distinction between the two (hominy grits are much preferred over plain grits). That suggests to me that some processors sell grits made from corn that has not undergone the process to turn it into hominy.

    That still doesn’t nail it down.

    I recently came across a thread on the Rancho Gordo website discussing nixtamilization, grits and polenta. Several of the participants believe, as you suggested, that ALL grits were made from hominy.

    (http://ranchogordo.typepad.com/rancho_gordo_experiments_/2011/09/grits-polenta-mush-hominyexplain-the-differences-to-me-.html?cid=6a00d83451fd1569e2015391e257e5970b#comment-6a00d83451fd1569e2015391e257e5970b)

    However, one participant, a self-identified Southerner with an interest in agricultural history, gives a more nuanced story. To wit, that all grits were made from hominy up until the Civil War. After the Civil War, grits began being ground without first undergoing the nixtamilization process as a cost-savings measure, and that caused the consequent rise in pellagra.

    Once pellagra was understood, some states began passing laws that said all grits had to come from hominy. Additional steps of fortifying white flour and some meals with niacin were also taken. Finally, general economic improvements, enabling a broader diet (presumably including other niacin-rich foods) helped alleviate the problem.

    I realize the narrative above has some very large gaps as regards how things stand today. I don’t know whether, for example, grits producers have to clearly state whether or not their product is made from hominy. I’m also beginning to wonder whether Italian cornmeal sold for polenta has been nixtamilized.

    Clearly a discussion with an agricultural historian and a trip to the Schlesinger Library at Harvard are in order. I’ll keep you posted as more facts come to light.

    Thanks for the question.

    Ken

  9. Thanks for your thoughtful response. Terrific story, and I will be interested to read any followup your curiosity prompts you to pursue.

    I failed to mention how much I love your photography as well; I’m especially impressed by you asparagus “portrait”.

    Can’t wait to make this dish, so many favorite ingredients in a new combination. I’ve been on a Mexico/New Mexico jag (sopa de lima after finding Key limes in the grocery and NewMex posole stew after I found real dried posole – hominy corn – on Amazon). The polenta dish will continue the corn theme but in a different flavor palette. Thanks to both of you. Also thanks to Jody for what has become an Easter breakfast tradition here: her delicious orange and anise scones.

  10. A wonderful recipe and very informative post, Ken. Pellagra was never mentioned by any of the old-timers but that’s not at all unusual. We were taught that our family members came here for a better life but not much was said of how bad the former life was. I’ll have to ask Zia to see if she recalls anyone speaking of this.
    That said, this is a great recipe. Polenta has always been a frequent guest at our table but never quite so elegant as this dish. In fact, the only copper pot I own is the polenta pot my Grandfather brought back from Italy 60+ years ago. Zia will get a kick out of this dish. It’s a new way of preparing an old favorite and it doesn’t involve a trip to 3 spice shops and 2 specialty grocers. :) Thanks for taking the time to research and put this post together, Ken.

    • Hi, John–If you do a Google image search there are photographs of 19th century Italian villagers with the disease. Be forewarned: it’s not pretty. Anyway, we love polenta in whatever form (except instant), and something light like asparagus or baby artichokes is a great combo. Ken

  11. Are your friends chefs? I wouldn’t have the guts to invite “real” cooks over for dinner!!

    Or so I thought —

    We have running family joke rating celebrities — whether they were worthy to be invited for “tuna casserole” at our house. When we considered Julia Child, we decided that she was worthy and, of course, would be lots of fun but we wouldn’t have the nerve to cook for her. Then I actually saw her at the take out window that used to be at the Sheraton Prudential Center. She picked up a celephane-wrapped sandwich (looked like tuna or chicken salad) gave it a sniff and popped it in her mouth. I decided that Julia would eat even my questionable cooking!

    • Julia was completely unpretentious. I don’t know about chicken salad, but I know that she wasn’t above the occasional tuna salad sandwich.

      We have, as you might expect, a lot of “industry” friends, but not many that we cook with often, mainly because everyone’s schedule is so bad. People say we’re scary to cook for, but in reality we’re easy. Other friends who like to cook invite us over–and we’re happy to have someone else do it for a change.

      Ken

  12. Julia was completely unpretentious. I don’t know about chicken salad, but I know that she wasn’t above the occasional tuna salad sandwich.

    We have, as you might expect, a lot of “industry” friends, but not many that we cook with often, mainly because everyone’s schedule is so bad. People say we’re scary to cook for, but in reality we’re easy. Other friends who like to cook invite us over–and we’re happy to have someone else do it for a change.

    Ken

  13. Pingback: Wholewheat fusilli with radicchio (Italian chicory) and pancetta (Italian bacon). | Chocolate Spoon & The Camera

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