Rachel Roddy’s recipe for polenta with butter, parmesan and greens | Food

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Two sorts of rain today. One is bouncing off the brown terrace tiles, and giving them a clean, at least. The other is of polenta, raining down into a pan of boiling water. I’d planned a downpour of instant polenta, but then it went dark and the sky opened, so standing by a warm cooker, stirring and listening to the radio, was suddenly a good idea. Also, I’m convinced that the option of instant – be that polenta, custard, chocolate pudding, coffee or tan – makes the long version more appealing, because it is a choice.

In Elena Previde Massara’s Il Grande Libro della Polenta, there is a line illustration in which Italy’s lower half is a familiar boot, but then midway up becomes a cob of maize that mimics the shape of the country and reveals the kernels, ready to be dried and ground into polenta. A half-corn Italy, though, only began in the 16th century, when maize was introduced to Europe from Mesoamerica, where it is thought to have been celebrated, harvested, ground and eaten as early as 10,000 years ago. The word polenta is ancient, deriving from the Latin polĕnta, which means something made of pollen, or “fine flour”, and cooked into a mush, or puls as it was known in ancient Rome, and made from barley, farro, chickpeas or chestnuts.

Previde explains that there is some debate and document-waving by both the Friulani and Bergamaschi over who first cultivated maize and ground it into puls/polenta. What is certain is that it became a sustenance food, surrounded by ritual, folklore and wonderful recipes. Traditionalists insist that polenta requires slow cooking, ideally in a copper pan, with constant stirring for at least an hour and up to three, and sometimes even four. The science behind this is starch gelatinisation, the process by which, thanks to heat, water and stirring, the tightly bound starch molecules within each grain loosen and swell, becoming digestible, and giving off a starchy gel that brings everything together. It is also during long cooking that flavour is developed. Harold McGee is right that cooks can develop just as much flavour with less labour by partly covering a pot of just-thickened polenta, putting it into a low oven (130C/250F/gas ½), which heats the bottom and sides in a controlled, even way, and stirring only occasionally.

And then there is instant polenta, made with polenta that has been pre-cooked, usually with steam, dried and ground to a fine powder. This process means its absorption is completely different from proper polenta, and it cooks in a fraction of the time. I think instant polenta is best when it is left to set, then cut into slices and brought back to life in a frying pan. And long-cooked polenta is wonderful, especially when you learn that you don’t need to stand still and stir constantly.

Two sorts of rain, and two ways to serve the polenta. One is simply more grated parmesan or cubed fontina, the other is a mound of green, which I crave at the moment – broccoletti, cavolo nero or sprouting broccoli (let’s say 500g), trimmed accordingly, boiled in well-salted boiling water until tender, then tossed in gently warmed olive oil, a clove of minced garlic and a good pinch of red chilli flakes. And, for pudding, I suggest instant chocolate pudding.

Polenta with butter, parmesan and greens

Prep 10 min
Cook 50 min (or about 15 min if using instant polenta)
Serves 4

Salt
300g polenta
(or instant polenta)
500g broccoletti
, cavolo nero or sprouting broccoli, trimmed accordingly
Olive oil
1 garlic clove, peeled and minced
Red chilli flakes
, to taste
1 big slice of butter
4 tbsp grated parmesan

In a medium saucepan or deep saute pan, ideally copper or with a heavy base, heat 1.1 litres water until boiling, add salt, stir and reduce to a lively simmer. Slowly “rain” the polenta into the pan, whisking as you do, to prevent clumps.

Once the polenta is incorporated, swap the whisk for a wooden spoon and stir. If you are using instant polenta, follow the packet instructions; otherwise, cook, stirring very regularly, for 45 minutes, or until the polenta is thick (but not stiff; if that is the case, add more hot water), pulling away from the sides of the pan and cooked through.

Meanwhile, immerse the broccoletti, cavolo nero or sprouting broccoli in well salted boiling water, cook for five or so minutes, until tender, then drain. In a frying pan, gently warm some olive oil and add the garlic and chilli flakes. Once fragrant, add the broccoli and a pinch of salt, and turn in the oil.

Stir the butter and half the parmesan into the polenta, turn it out on to a large dish, and top with the greens and remaining parmesan. Serve immediately.

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