Some old school polenta making, by Pietro Longhi. Photo from Wikipedia
When I was little, my stepfather often made polenta to go with the steaks he’d grilled. This occasion was severely disappointing. I wanted creamy mashed potatoes. What I got was a pale yellow square that looked like it could be cake but was instead a fairly grainy, wholly uncreamy bore. None of the other kids had to eat polenta. I chalked it up as another one of Carl’s Brazilian affections not easily given up (along with dipping steak in Yucca flour and Yerba Mate tea).
Years later I discovered polenta could be rich and creamy. I was aghast. Did my sweet stepfather Carl not know this? Did all of Brazil live in polenta-ignorance? I moved the grain from the column FOODS I MORE OR LESS HATE to the column FOODS I CAN CO-EXIST WITH.
The pork shank over creamy polenta at Bacaro. Photo from youngandhungry.com
Years after that epiphany, it was a dish at Bacaro in the Lower East Side that turned polenta into a FOOD THAT MAKES ME CRAZY HAPPY. They serve a braised pork shoulder, meat falling off the bone into a pile of the creamiest, silkiest polenta you’ve ever tasted. There are many reasons to go to Bacaro, and this dish is in the top 5.
Inspired, I decide to make a braised pork shoulder. I would serve it over polenta equally as creamy and silky as Bacaro’s. All day, my pork shoulder braised away in the crockpot. A half hour before dinner, I pulled out the box of polenta. Basically, you add water and stir. You add butter and maybe a little cream if that’s your game (it’s mine).
What I didn’t remember was that scene from Bill Buford’s book, Heat (I wrote about this book), that describes his run-in with polenta. It begins innocently enough, pouring the grain into a few cups of water and stirring while it simmers. What happens with polenta, however, is that in a matter of seconds it thickens A LOT, and big bubbles of heat come up from the bottom of the saucepan and explode through the surface of rapidly cooking cornmeal, sending warm pellets of this ancient yellow grain everywhere, in this case all over my favorite cashmere sweater (why I’m wearing a cashmere sweater is a question often asked of me by my increasingly exasperated boyfriend) in my hair, my cheeks, my left eye. With my right eye I see this bubbling mass shares more characteristics with an active volcano than it does a side dish.
Where did I lose control? In Buford’s book, he describes the exact same thickening. Polenta requires finesse, the most delicate balance of heat and liquid, and physical prowess… consistent stirring is important to distribute heat. More importantly, you need to know how to maximize flavor. What I ended up with is a polenta that only a baby or a dog could love. It was warm, yes, but possessed about as much flavor as an unsalted cracker. I added salt. I added butter. I added cream. But it was too late. In the cornmeal’s fury I had missed my chance to flavor the thing.
Polenta has now been moved into the column FOODS THAT INFURIATE ME. Until it moves into the column FOOD I HAVE MASTERED, you may find me at Bacaro.
To learn more about polenta, read lifeinitaly.com , wikipedia and get recipes from epicurious.com.
Or just go to some really good Italian restaurants, like Bacaro or its sister restaurant Peasant.