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Polenta alla contadina

A cornmeal porridge - polenta - traditionally takes the place of pasta in certain parts of northern Ital, particularly Friuli and Carnia.  It's eaten either plain with a little olive oil and grated cheese, or with a sauce of the kind suitable for pasta.  A coarse-grind is best for a soft-cooked polenta to be served as it is; while fine-ground cornmeal cooks to a firm, smooth paste better suited to the process of frying or grilling. This version is from Carnia, where the prefer a white cornmeal to the golden.  It is usual to serve it with radishes or pickled turnips and frico - grated hard cheese fried to a crisp little pancake in olive oil, or simply toasted in a dry pan till the cheese melts to form a thin biscuit.

Quantity: Serves 6 people
Cooking: 40 minutes



1 litre/1 1/2 pints water
250g/8 oz coarse-ground white cornmeal (polenta)
1 tablespoon salt



Bring the water to the boil in a roomy saucepan. Trickle in the polenta from your hand, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon with the other hand. Make sure the mixture is smooth and press out any lumps with the back of the spoon. The process is much like making oatmeal-porridge. Add the salt, bring to the boil, turn down the heat and let it bubble gently for 30-40 minutes, stirring regularly to avoid sticking. Add a little boiling water if it looks too thick.
     When the mixture is soft and smooth and comes away from the sides of the pan, it's done.  Serve with a well-flavoured sauce - anything suitable for pasta is appropriate, particularly if it includes mushrooms.  Pass round a grater and a generous hunk of hard cheese, grana - parmesan, pecorino - for people to add their own.

To serve with grilled meat, make the polenta as above, but using fine-ground instead of coarse cornmeal. When the polenta is cooked to a soft porridge, pour it into a lightly-oiled gratin dish - the layer should be the thickness of your finger.  Leave to cool.  When firm, use a wet knife to cut it into squares, arrange these on a grill pan, brush with olive oil and grill till crisp and brown, then turn and grill the other side.  Or fry gently in a little olive oil - careful when you turn the pieces, they crumble easily and can lose their crisp coating. Practice makes perfect.


Recipe from European Peasant Cookery

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