When the weather turns lousy and gray and the temperature drops below the 20C mark, one food in particular always comes to my mind: polenta. Polenta usually gets a bad press. It is labelled as tasteless and pointless, as porridge-like (honestly... some people really don't know what they talk about) or simply as bland. In fact, poor old polenta is none of these. The problem with it, if one lives outside of Italy, is that what is found in supermarkets and average grocery shops couldn't be further from real polenta, the one poured over gigantic wooden boards in Alpine resorts, as all tuck in with crusty bread and lots of laughter. I know I paint a bit of a Pollyanna-like picture, but, really, polenta is just that, the sort of hearty food that brings all together after a day on the slopes. Or shopping in the Galleria Vittorio Emanuele in Milan. Whatever makes you tick. What to do if the Alps are miles away and the supermarket offering is either a vacuumed-packed brick-like slippery slab or an instantaneous pap that curdles 20 seconds after touching hot water? Rescue is at hand my friend and it will all be worth it, for you will enjoy one of the most exciting foods one can taste.
The fab thing about polenta is that it can be dressed in whichever way one favours. Popular choices are always porcini sauce, with generous Parmesan, pesto, four cheeses (in particular gorgonzola or any other blue cheese, they all melt fabulously), as well as the very simple and very beautiful olive oil with shards of Parmesan thrown on for good measure. Polenta is cornmeal and takes a very long time to prepare. Don't be fooled by those ghastly offerings that promise to be ready in 10 minutes flat; this is not good polenta. Good polenta is supposed to be firm yet elastic, with more consistency than really good mash, but a grain that offers stimulation to the tastebuds. It should be added to hot water, a pioggia, that is rained in from the packet, as your other hand whips away. Add milk a little at a time and ensure that polenta stays away from the sides of the pan.
This whipping motion, ideally with a large wooden spoon, should continue for the entire duration of the cooking, anything between 50 minutes (for better polenta than the one found at the supermarket but not as good as really top one) to 90 minutes (for real polenta that holds its shape and its taste way beyond you've finished stirring). If you have a fireplace, get yourself a paiolo, or copper pan, suspend it above the logs and get cooking. This is the way it was done many years ago and still the best because copper retains heat and keeps polenta warmer for longer. Like mash and pizza, it has a terrible tendency to cool fast, as soon as spooned onto a plate. Don't let that happen; lace it up with a home-made sauce of your choice (my favourite is any mouldy cheese slotted into the hot cracks) and eat it fast, as I do. Find good polenta at Harrods and less good at Harley Nichols. If all else fails, polenta Agnesi is not that bad even though it cooks barely for 20 minutes. Beware of quick-cooking polenta; it tends to bubble like molten lava and while it may be ok on eating, it isn't ok exploded in one's face.