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 want 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.
Although 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, SHAVED ASPARAGUS AND AGED GOUDA
- 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
- 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.
- 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
- Preheat the broiler.
- 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.
- 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.
- Return the pan to the broiler and cook 4 minutes or until the asparagus wilt and start to brown.
- Top with the fresh herbs and drizzle with the remaining oil.
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.
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