Loose polenta topped with meatballs and tomato sauce at The Kitchen Next Door, Boulder, CO | Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Loose polenta topped with meatballs and tomato sauce at The Kitchen Next Door, Boulder, CO | Credit: Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Stir, stir, without fear…. You have to continue with that blessed bastone (wooden paddle), at least a half hour after you think the polenta is done. And do you know why? Because this extra cooking, these additional rotations in the polenta pot, always in the same direction [clockwise], always rhythmic…make the polenta more digestible, more delicious; they take away any slightly bitter flavor that sometimes remains which only reveals the fret and impatience of whomever has cooked it…. but if you still carry on with the stirring even longer, with the highest degree of devotion, it will become perfect.
–Luigi Carnacina and Vincenzo Buonassisi, Il Libro della Polenta: La Avventurosa Storia Della Polenta, Aldo Martello – Giunto Editore S.P.A., Firenze (1984)
So wrote two famous gastronomes of the last century in their classic cookbook, my first polenta primer. And until recently, for lump-free and silky results, I have advocated the same method used since dried maize became the emblematic food of Italy’s northern peasantry. For years, I have stirred and stirred the cornmeal and water continually for an hour as it simmers just as I have watched countless cooks do in Italy’s polenta-loving regions, trickling in additional hot water as necessary to keep the mass soft and supple as the grains yield their inimitable fragrance and the polenta reaches perfection. Once, on a quiet day when there were no tasks at hand and no children or husbands to attend to, I stirred for two hours and the resulting porridge was more delicious than any I had ever made. That particular marathon was impelled by the sheer meditative pleasure of watching the soft golden swells undulating in my old copper pot, their vapors filling the room while I stared out at a snow fall from my kitchen window.
 @Nathan Hoyt/Forktales
Piping hot and creamy yellow polenta unta, with butter and Grana Padano shavings in a terracotta casserole. Credit: @Nathan Hoyt/Forktales

But, you might ask, who, among us, in today’s fast world, has the luxury of time for such tiresome work? Was there a way, without resorting to instant polenta, which is not only tasteless, but is missing nutrients lost in the industrial pre-cooking process? “Cooks in 5 minutes,” the packaging promises! Anyone familiar with authentic Italian food understands that to make polenta properly, there is considerably more time involved.
Pondering this question on behalf of my students and readers, I referred to Marcella Hazan’s Essentials of Italian Cooking, America’s gospel of pure Italian cookery, to see what she had to say. Always the researcher, the trustworthy guide, her footnotes sometimes shed light on the chemistry of the cooking process, now and then reshaping classic recipes and cooking techniques to take into account the public’s changing eating habits since her first missive was released in the 1960s.
Reading through the polenta section, I was surprised to find a variation for “Polenta by the No-Stirring Method.” Marcella writes, “Stirring polenta in an open pot for the entire time it cooks undoubtedly yields the best product, mostly in terms of pure fragrance, and to a certain, but lesser extent in terms of overall flavor. It is nonetheless possible to make very good polenta with hardly any stirring. It will take the same amount of time, but it will free you from the stove for the better part of an hour.”
 Bertarelli Collection, Castello Sforzesco, Milano.
This woodcut on a cookbook cover showing a “polentaro” stirring his pot, was first issued to illustrate an article, “The Magnificent Virtues of Polenta,” in a popular Milano newspaper, 1860. Credit: Bertarelli Collection, Castello Sforzesco, Milano.

Curious about the method, I asked Victor Hazan, the late cookbook writer’s husband and collaborator, about the recipe. He explained its derivation, which I quote with his kind permission:
“Marcella had a housekeeper/assistant, Maria, who lived with us in New York and Italy for more than twenty years…. She was from Badoere, a small town in the Veneto. Her cooking repertory was limited and rustic, usually not a fertile source of ideas for Marcella, but one day that Marcella asked her to make polenta for us, she found her making it more or less by the method described in the recipe, which Maria said was the way they did it at home. Marcella was intrigued, and on another occasion, and then another–Marcella never tested anything once– she made it and perfected it herself. “
Since then, I have discovered that many restaurant chefs use the technique, which somehow escaped my radar, baking the polenta for as long as three hours. Consulting other sources to learn something more about the technique, I wrote to Paula Wolfert, a cookbook writer well known for her books on Mediterranean food. “[It’s] a great way to produce perfect polenta without a lot of work, using a well-greased earthenware cazuela,” she wrote. “The [slow-cooking oven] method…coaxes extra flavor from the coarse cornmeal by allowing it to toast as it cooks, resulting in a soft, tender polenta with a lovely glossy sheen.”
Here an adaptation of Marcella’s recipe, which I now use successfully myself, followed by a few suggestions for how to serve up the maize porridge in a variety of ways.
Polenta by the No-Stirring Method
(an adaptation of Marcella Hazan’s version)
Prep Time: 5 minutes
Cooking Time: about 55 minutes
Total Time: about 1 hour
Yield: about 8 cups cooked cornmeal
Note that this recipe is for loose, porridge-style polenta, for which serving suggestions are offered below. Alternatively, the polenta, once cooked, can be spread out onto an oiled work surface to a thickness of about 1/8-inch, cut into slices or squares and grilled or fried, or baked, like lasagna, with a variety of fillings between two layers.
• 7 cups water
• 1 tablespoon salt
• 1-2/3 cups coarse-grained imported Italian yellow polenta cornmeal (not instant)
• A large, heavy pot with a tight-fitting lid
• An ample, wide and shallow serving platter
1 Bring the water to a boil in the pot. Add the salt, keeping the water boiling at medium-high heat continually, and add the cornmeal in a very thin stream, a very little at a time, stirring constantly as it falls into the water. Use a sturdy whisk to stir all the while, always in the same direction.
2 When you have put in all the meal, stir for 2 minutes, then cover the pot. Adjust heat so that the water bubbles at a lively simmer, but not at full boil. When the polenta has cooked for 10 minutes, uncover and stir for 1 full minute, then cover again. After another 10 minutes, stir again, then cover, let cook another 10 minutes, stir once more, and in 10 minutes, repeat the procedure.
3 Forty minutes will have elapsed, and the polenta will need another 5 minutes to shed its graininess and come together into a soft, creamy mass. It is done when the polenta pulls away easily from the sides of the pot with a whisk or wooden spoon. Just before you take it off the heat, stir it vigorously for about 1 minute, loosening it from the pot. Stir with a long wooden spoon from bottom to top, reaching into the sides of the pan to unstick the mass from the bottom corners of the pan. It is ready to be turned out onto the platter.

Some quick ways with loose polenta:

– The most simple is to flavor it with good olive oil or butter and top with grated cheese (polenta unta). Offer this with paper-thin slices of imported Italian prosciutto, coppa, or good artisanal finocchiona, or other artisan salumi on the side.

– Slather it generously with a runny cheese of your choice, such as Taleggio or runny, fresh Gorgonzola Dolce.

– Blend in cream, butter, and grated Cheddar or other soft cheese in the American fashion; scatter with bacon.

– Serve it on a wide, shallow platter topped with braised or sautéed greens, whether cime di rapa (broccoletti, aka “rappini”)), kale, mustard greens, or collards.

– Use it as a bed for fried eggs or uova affogate (eggs “drowned” [poached] in tomato sauce) — or anything else cooked in tomato sauce.

– Make a “well” in the center to cradle braised or roasted meats, stew, meatballs, or seafood.

Julia della Croce is a food writer and James Beard award-winning cookbook author and recipe developer based in New York. She is presently incubating a book about her family’s ancestral region, Sardegna. Visit her website, www.juliadellacroce.com and blog, http://juliadellacroce.com/forktales1/, connect on Facebook: Julia della Croce – chef & foodwriter, Twitter: @juliadellacroce and Instagram: juliadellacroce.
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