Legendary Dishes | Mămăligă and Polenta (boiled cornmeal)

Balkans | Italy

 

Polenta stares at us from the past.

Of all the foods of antiquity none bar unleavened bread has the longevity of polenta.

Coarse ground grains and pulses have been an intregral element of our daily diet for tens of thousands of years. By the time they were written into timeless history, their evolution beyond flours had been forgotten and despite archeological evidence all we can do is guess what our ancient ancestors did with them.

Modern polenta, made from dried corn meal, is a clue.

Before corn was introduced into Europe and ingenious cooks mixed it with local cheeses, herbs and meats to form the polenta dishes we know today in the Balkans, in Italy, Sardinia and Sicily, polenta was made with barley, millet, sorghum and spelt grains, and with countless varieties of peas and beans, and with chestnuts – a tradition that continues in Italy.

Like the polenta of today it was made without addition or adornment. In some regions it was enriched with whatever was at hand, fresh berries, herbs and other fruits of the forest, as was the tradition in alpine Italy.

There were no rules, and definitely no recipes.

If anyone did record polenta recipes it was the Etruscans, the Italic people who occupied northern and middle Italy before the invading Phoenicians and the conquering Romans.

These pagan people transformed the forests and swamps of Etruria into fields and gardens, growing the grains and legumes that accompanied the fauna, fish and fowl served at their sumptuous banquets and feasts.

It is not a huge stretch of the imagination to envisage the Etruscan table with a
thick pulmentario made from ground barley cut into slices and adorned with fish and meat.

Not when it is now possible to eat squares of corn polenta adorned with prosciutto or sardines in a modern Florentine cafe.

The history of polenta becomes interesting when the contrasting recipes of the Balkans and Italy are examined, and old recipes, with chestnut flour or semolina, are reinterpreted.

The potential of polenta has always been there, and the connections are closer than we think.

Pellegrino Artusi refers to a 19th century recipe that calls for corn polenta cooked in milk with salt and baked with layers of béchamel and parmigiano. This is not that dissimilar to the mămăligă and kačamak made on the Balkan side of the Adriatic.

 

Mămăligă

 

1.2 litres water
500 g corn meal, coarse ground
500 g curd cheese, creamed
300 ml sour cream
100 g butter
2 eggs, beaten
15 g salt
10 g black pepper, freshly ground
Olive oil, for greasing
Semolina, for dusting

 

Boil the water with salt.

Using a funnel pour the corn meal in a steady flow into the water, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon.

Vladimar Mirodan describes this procedure in his Balkan Cookbook: ‘When the water begins to bubble, sprinkle two tablespoons of the maize (corn) flour over the surface of the water.

‘Allow the water to boil furiously and pour the rest of the maize flour in a steady trickle stirring all the time with a wooden spoon in a clockwise circular motion; do not change the direction of the stirring.

‘Lower the heat to moderate and allow the porridge to boil for 25-30 minutes, uncovered.’

The result is a thick polenta. Leave to cool.

Mirodan: ‘Romanian polenta dishes should be too thick to stir and have a strong, almost crunchy texture.’

Divide the cooked polenta into two equal portions, one into a large bowl with the butter.

After ten minutes stir the polenta into the melted butter.

Combine the cheese with the eggs.

When the polenta with the butter has cooled, add the cheese-egg mixture and mix with a fork into a creamy consistency.

Preheat oven to 180°C.

Lightly grease a large baking tray with the oil, sprinkle with semolina, then the pepper.

Press the plain polenta into the semolina-pepper, covering the tray.

Place the cheese polenta on top, covering the bottom layer.

Smooth with a wide blade or make ridges with a fork.

Bake for 35 minutes until the surface has taken on a golden brown colour.

 

Mămăliguţă cu brânză şi Smântână

 

2 litres water
500 g corn meal, coarse ground
500 g curd cheese, creamed
500 ml sour cream
300 g hard cheese, grated
300 g smoked bacon, diced
50 g butter, unsalted

 

Prepare the polenta using the previous method, then stir the butter in while it is still hot. This will produce a softer polenta.

Preheat oven to 160°C.

Fry bacon over a medium heat for five minutes until it is crispy, pour fat into a large baking tray.

Spread a thin layer of potenta on the tray, sprinkle the grated cheese followed by the sour cream, dots of curd cheese and the bacon, repeat until there is only cheese and cream left. Finish with a layer of grated cheese, curd cheese and sour cream.

Bake for 45 minutes, until the top begins to brown.

 

A note on cheese and cream: Mămăligă is made throughout the Balkans, the cheeses and creams being the specific difference between regions.

Generally the choice is curd cheese made from cow, goat and sheep milk, Sirene in Bulgaria, Feta in Greece, Telemea in Romania.

The choice of hard cheese is Cașcaval (aka Kachkaval).

The choice of cream varies between thick sour cream known throughout the Balkans and eastern Europe as smetana (smântână in Romania), and home made fermented cream called kajmak.

Kajmak is preferred in the eastern Balkan countries where mămăligă is known as kačamak.

La Polenta di Castagne

 

2 litres water
500 g chestnut flour
Salt, pinch

 

Boil the water with salt.

Using a funnel pour the chestnut flour in a steady flow into the water, stir to incorporate, then leave to cook over a medium heat, stirring occasionally, about 45 minutes.

Serve with ricotto, pancetta and sausage.

 

Crostini di Polenta

 

1.5/2 litres water
500 g polenta flour, fine
180 g Ricotta, creamed
180 g Emmental, grated
1 egg yolk, beaten
75 g Parmigiano, grated fine for garnish
Salt, pinch, for cooking water and sauce
Olive oil, for cooking water, frying, greasing and sauce

 

Follow the cooking instructions from the packet of polenta for amount of water and cooking time.

Boil the water with salt and a splash of oil.

Using a funnel pour the corn meal in a steady flow into the water, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until cooked.

Pour out into a deep sided short baking tray, lightly greased.

When the polenta has cooled turn it out onto a work surface, cut into squares, 5cm x 5cm x 1cm.

Whip a tablespoon of olive into the egg yolk, combine with the emmental and ricotta in a saucepan over a very low heat, cook until bubbles begin to appear on the surface.

Fry the polenta squares in a tablespoon of oil, two minutes each side.

Serve with the cheese sauce, garnish with parmigiano.

 

Sgonfiotto di Farina Gialla

 

This is an adaptation of Artusi’s recipe for polenta soufflé.

 

350 ml milk
105 g corn meal/polenta flour, fine ground
4 egg whites
20 g butter
2 egg yolks, beaten
10 g sugar
Salt, pinch
Butter, for greasing

 

Bring milk to the boil over a high heat.
Using a funnel pour the corn meal in a steady flow into the milk, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until cooked.
Remove to a bowl, stir in butter, sugar and salt.
When the polenta is cold stir in the egg yolks.
Preheat oven to 160°C.
Beat the egg whites, stir into the polenta, and transfer to buttered ovenproof moulds.
Bake for 15 minutes, until the polenta soufflé rises.
Serve in moulds.

 

Polenta di Sardinia

 

Sardinia, outside the circuit of civilisation as D. H. Lawrence put it, has always produced traditional food a class apart from the peninsula, and the method with polenta is no different. It compares with the Balkan tradition, which is interesting. Ideas being transferred by the fishers of the Mediterranean seas perhaps? It wouldn’t be the first time.

 

2 litres water
500 g corn meal, coarse ground
200 g pancetta, diced
100 g pecorino, grated
100 g salami, diced
100 g onions, chopped
50 ml passata
6 cloves garlic, chopped
Basil, large pinch
Parsley, large pinch
Salt, pinch

Follow the cooking instructions from the packet of polenta for amount of water and cooking time.

Boil the water with salt.

Using a funnel pour the corn meal in a steady flow into the water, stirring vigorously with a wooden spoon until.

After ten minutes add the remaining ingredients, continue to stir and when ready pour out onto a clean work surface, cut in slices and serve, or use cold with adornments of your choice.


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