Polenta is a popular dish in Northern Italy, but all over the country and at different times of the year (usually in the fall) small towns plan their own polenta festivals to celebrate this hearty dish. Pounds of polenta are traditionally cooked over a wood burning fire, then spread out hot on wood tables. The polenta then congeals and transforms into almost a bread cake to be scooped up and devoured by hungry guests.

Our friends Bill and Anne Disselhorst (rest in peace) at Fiore Market Café in South Pasadena, CA, recreated a Festa della Polenta for our families and friends on a mild winter night to demonstrate the versatility and romance of this basic food (cornmeal).

Bill began preparing the sauce a few days before with beef shank and a fresh ragu, then cooked sausages to accompany. Fresh sprigs of basil and a good selection of blue cheese completed the sensual offering.

Once the polenta is spread onto plates of poplar wood, the sauce, sausage and basil are added on top as well as a bowl of chicory (grilled radicchio mixed with balsamic vinaigrette) as a side dish. The combination of warm polenta, a hearty sauce, and the pungent and sharp flavor of the blue cheese combined for an unforgettable meal enjoyed family style.

Like making risotto, often referred to as a labor of love, skilled “whisking” is the key to properly prepared polenta. And, a table full of friends.

• 2 cups polenta
• 6 cups of water
• 1/4 cup grated Parmesan
• 4 tablespoons butter
• salt and pepper

Bring water to boil in a large pot and slowly pour polenta into boiling water. Use whisk and continue to stir. Cook for 20-30 minutes until polenta thickens and becomes smooth. When ready, polenta should pull away from the pan when it is stirred. At the end, add parmesan and butter. Incorporate well. 

Spoon or pour polenta onto clean wooden plank (poplar works well for this). Polenta will harden in about 15 minutes. Ladle your sauce of choice on top. Serve with fresh pecorino, gorgonzola, blue or parmesan cheese.

More: fioremarketcafe.com
Images: Tim Schamber

From Issue 11. Buy it here.