For my family and neighbors here in Istria, polenta has become quite an occasion during the pandemic. Together we sowed a field with maize, the first for many years, and I learned how labor-intensive it is—the harvesting, drying, shelling, grinding, and sifting. While movement was restricted here due to COVID-19 the polenta flowed through the village in the form of gift exchanges of eggs, cabbages, olive oil, and cakes. And when restrictions eased our first communal meal was a feast featuring wild boar stew with scoops of stiff golden polenta.
Polenta was once an everyday staple here in Istria, the peninsula in the Adriatic which today comprises parts of Croatia, Slovenia, and Italy. Families grew maize, both yellow and white, and took it to one of the hundreds of small mills, now ruins in the forest. But while other so-called peasant foods associated with Istria’s rural heritage have become hallmark features of “Istrian cuisine,” polenta has not experienced this culinary revival. Unlike most of those other dishes it was not a feasting food, so perhaps its association with poverty makes it unsuitable.
It also takes time to cook, which is inconvenient. Of course, one can buy “quick-cook” polenta. But if you have the time—and perhaps you do right now—it’s worth finding some coarsely ground cornmeal and an hour to cook it. The pot only needs intermittent care, it provides an alternative to pasta, and leftovers fry up beautifully. If you’re used to quick-cook polenta the taste and texture will surprise you too. You can enrich it by substituting stock or milk for water and adding butter and cheese. But good cornmeal needs just salt and a dash of olive oil, leaving the sweet maize flavor intact.
Soft or stiff
This is personal preference: a soothing porridge-like consistency to eat with a spoon, or rough hunks of firm polenta to contrast with a saucy stew. The difference is achieved by varying the ratio of polenta to water, measured by volume. As a rule of thumb 1:2 results in a very firm polenta, 1:3 medium and 1:4 or more soft. However, it depends on the grind, so follow packet instructions, or experiment until you find your sweet spot.
Basic recipe (serves 6–8)
2 cups (475ml) coarse ground polenta
4–8 cups (945–1,900ml) water (see note above)
3 tablespoons (45ml) olive oil
Choose a medium-large tall saucepan in which the water will fit with headroom. Bring the water to a boil, season with salt, and add the polenta in a steady stream, whisking continuously to prevent lumps. Once it’s all whisked in and bubbling, reduce the heat to very low and switch to a long wooden spoon or spatula to stir in the oil.
Let the polenta cook slowly, magma-like bubbles barely breaking the surface, and stir every 10 or so minutes to prevent it catching at the bottom. Inevitably it will stick a bit, but don’t let it burn or the whole pot will be infused with an unpleasant scorched flavor. It can help to keep the pot covered between stirs. If the consistency feels too stiff, beat in some hot water. After an hour, maybe less, the polenta should be ready. Taste to check no grittiness remains, and add more salt if it is bland. (You could stir in a knob of butter or handful of grated Parmesan at this point.)
If your polenta is soft, scoop it directly into shallow bowls. If it’s firm, you can pour it onto a wooden board, leave to sit for a few minutes to firm up some more, then cut into wedges.
If you cannot eat it all right now, transfer the remainder to a straight-sided container while still piping hot and pourable. Once cooled transfer to the fridge where it will keep for two or three days.
Using leftover polenta
Polenta from the fridge should slide out of its container, providing a neat block to slice into tranches. Place a skillet, preferably cast-iron, over a medium heat and wait until heated before adding enough oil to cover the surface and your slabs of polenta. Fry for a good eight or so minutes on each surface until a golden brown crust has formed and the inside is piping hot. Don’t be tempted to move the pieces too often—they need time to form a crust and release from the pan.
Pretty much anything you can imagine pairing with pasta or mashed potatoes goes with polenta. Here are a few ideas:
- Your favorite meat stew. Here we love it with wild boar goulash, cooked with red wine and flavored with rosemary, sage, and juniper.
- Your favorite greens. Take a heap of kale, mustard greens, chard, or sprouting broccoli and blanch them in salted water. Meanwhile gently fry chopped garlic and chilli, and salted anchovy fillets too if you like, in olive oil. Drain the greens and toss with the garlicky oil.
- Eggs. Polenta and eggs are a fantastic combination, whether the polenta is soft or fried up for breakfast. Keep it simple with fried eggs and chilli sauce, or indulgent with poached eggs, plenty of melty cheese, and a moat of fresh or soured cream.
- Mushrooms: Another great pairing. Slice and simply fry with a little chopped garlic until golden, or turn into a rich ragù with the addition of rehydrated dried wild mushrooms, white wine, and cream.
Anna Colquhoun, a member of the Food Studies Centre at SOAS University of London, is writing her PhD in anthropology. She lives in Croatian Istria where she researches the ways food is implicated in social relations and place-making as the region becomes a “gastronomic” destination. She has worked in food for many years and written several cookbooks.
Charlotte Hollands created artwork as well as spot illustrations of experiences from social distancing life for AN’s pandemic issue. Hollands is an illustrator, artist, and ethnographer who is developing new ways to use illustration within social science research and is currently completing her first graphic nonfiction book, written by Alisse Waterston.
Cite as: Colquhoun, Anna. 2020. “A Recipe for Polenta from Istria.” Anthropology News website, June 19, 2020. DOI: 10.1111/AN.1434