Polenta – Italy’s Other National Dish

Polenta On The Grill 

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

On a visit to Pescolanciano, Molise, Italy, the birthplace of my husband’s grandfather, our relatives showed us a video of the Polenta Festival that takes place each August.  The entire village comes together to prepare and eat polenta.  We think pasta is Italy’s favorite staple but polenta has a rich culinary history and significance for sustaining Italians, especially in times when food was scarce. 

If you equate polenta with grits, a Southern American classic with American Indian roots, you are on target.  Both are forms of coarsely ground corn cooked into porridge.  Corn came to Venice in the 16th century, a result of the voyages of Columbus and the exploration of the Americas, however long before that, cooked porridge, usually made with millet, chickpeas or buckwheat, was an essential Italian staple or “staff of life” according to Fred Plotkin in his fantastic book Italy for the Gourmet Traveler. A 1516 painting by the artist Raphael included a corn cob, evidence that corn was used at the time, notes Plotkin.  Polenta  took over as the most popular grain for simmering and it is prepared in various ways with Italian regional ingenuity throughout the country.

My favorite way to serve polenta during spring and summer is chilled, cut into pieces and grilled or oven-roasted so it’s crusty on the outside and creamy inside. In the winter I prepare soft polenta, made with a higher percentage of liquid, to accompany hearty stews.  I use chicken broth for flavor and milk for creaminess.  Enriched with herbs, cheeses and a little olive oil, it’s a tasty side dish on its own.  Or, top with a spoonful of your favorite tomato sauce and a sprinkle of freshly shredded Parmesan or another Italian cheese.  

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

I often serve polenta with grilled meat or fish but a bean salad, marinated with garlic- and herb-spiked oil and vinegar would pair well.  Corn and beans, classic partners in Mexican cooking, have complementary amino acids that blend to make a “complete” protein profile. 

In a radio interview with food expert Harold McGee (author of On Food and Cooking, the Science and Lore of the Kitchen, and Keys to Good Cooking: A Guide to Making the Best of Foods and Recipes) he recommended my favorite way of cooking polenta – in a microwave oven. Why stand over a hot stove stirring and stirring if there is an easier way, especially in the warm summer months?  And clean-up is so much easier.

Be sure to have a large, at least 3-quart, microwave-safe bowl or casserole dish for cooking to prevent a boil-over.  And know that microwaves vary in power and cooking so keep an eye on the polenta and stir every two minutes or so.  Another almost stir-free way to make polenta is to bake it in a moderate oven for 50 to 60 minutes, a method to try in the winter when you don’t mind keeping your oven on for a long time.   

You will see ground cornmeal for polenta in a range of textures.  I use Bob’s Red Mill brand of polenta (the label also says corn grits) which is made with de-germinated corn so it is not technically whole grain but it has a lovely texture and corn flavor.


This recipe is for making polenta that will be chilled, cut into pieces and grilled or baked until toasty.  If you want a soft polenta, make it as directed, cover and let rest for 30 minutes or so.  Then add another ½ to 1 cup of broth and reheat, stirring often and adding more broth as needed to achieve a soft, creamy consistency. The resting time allows the grains of corn to fully soften, and hydrate. 

2 1/2 cups reduced-sodium chicken broth

2 cups nonfat or lowfat milk

1 1/2 cups polenta (stone ground or medium-grind yellow cornmeal)

2 tablespoons chopped fresh rosemary, oregano, marjoram or thyme*

1/2 cup freshly grated parmesan cheese

1 tablespoon olive oil

Salt, if needed

In large 3-quart microwave-safe casserole or bowl combine broth, milk, polenta and herbs.  Cook uncovered in microwave oven on high (100%) for 3 minutes.  With wire whisk, stir well.  Microwave an additional 8 to 10 minutes, stirring well after every 2 minutes, until mixture is very thick and creamy.  Stir in cheese and olive oil.  Add salt if needed.  Spread in oiled 7-x-11-inch pan.  Cool.  Cover and chill 4 hours or until firm.  (Can be made a day or two ahead of serving.)  Cut into  rectangles or triangles. Cook as directed below.  Makes about 6 servings.

To grill:  Lightly spray or brush both sides of each piece of polenta with olive and grill over medium fire, turning once, until hot and toasty.

To bake:  Place on lightly oiled baking sheet and heat in 375° oven for 20 to 30 minutes, until hot.  

*Basil can be substituted for the other herbs.  Increase amount to 4 tablespoons chopped basil and add along with the cheese. 

Copyright © Lorelle S Del Matto 2012

Photo by Lorelle Del Matto

lorelle About lorelle

Crazy about cooking, eating and sharing good food – my work and leisure revolve around the kitchen. As a culinary dietitian my professional life encompasses nutrition counseling and education, recipe development, product development, food and nutrition writing, marketing communications, corporate test kitchen and consumer affairs management, food styling and work as a product spokesperson.

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