If you hadn’t heard of the term before, a polenta party may evoke images of large bowls of polenta being eaten by people wearing party hats in a room decorated with streamers and balloons. But the real thing is a more dramatic, impressive and satisfying feasting experience. The food itself - soft, creamy polenta covered with ragu, herbs and cheese - is certainly enough to please. However, it’s the traditional Italian plating of hot polenta poured directly over a long table and garnished with a river of slow-cooked meat sauce that makes this an unforgettable dining experience.
Although this Northern Italian dish was mainly associated with peasants, polenta has now become one of the trendiest items in urban dining. “What is gobsmacking to me is that this is intrinsically so simple. This is like the representation of cucina povera, peasant cooking, on a board and yet it looks so impressive,” says chef and host of ‘Cook Like an Italian, Silvia Colloca. “This is a showstopper. You present this to the table and it’s a wow dish.”
To cook the polenta, Silvia cites her Nonna’s recipe of adding one cup of polenta to four cups of water and just “keep stirring ‘til you’re happy”. When cooking the polenta, it’s important to constantly stir the mixture in order to create an even and smooth consistency. If you want to create a creamier texture, Executive Chef at Adelaide restaurant Osteria Oggi, Andrew Davies, suggests using half milk and half water as the liquid base, and to add grated Parmigiano Reggiano, Pecorino and salted butter to taste once removed from the heat.
Cooking the polenta will take around 40 minutes, but if you’re making the mixture in advance, you can transfer it into a slow cooker on a low setting before guests arrive. This will prevent it from hardening and ensure the polenta is still soft enough to spread.
For the ragu, Davies suggests creating a chunky consistency to balance the smooth texture of the polenta. “You want a good binding liquid base, not too thin and runny. You don’t want it to run off your polenta,” he says. Cook the sauce long enough for it to develop rich and complex flavours, until the meat softens and falls off the bone.
“You want a good binding liquid base, not too thin and runny. You don’t want it to run off your polenta,”
The serving is where the magic happens, and according to Andrew “A bit of theatrics works well with this dish.” Although tradition instructs us to pour the polenta straight onto a long wooden table, large wooden boards will certainly make for easier clean up (although, if you’re game, a large runner of baking paper down a table could do the trick). Generously ladle the polenta onto the board, creating a well in the middle to poor in the ragu. To add a few extra elements of flavour to the dish, garnish with Parmigiano Reggiano and Pecorino, followed by chilli oil, extra virgin olive oil, chunks of red and green chilli, and a scatter of chopped fresh herbs.
While the polenta itself is satisfying enough, simple and light side dishes such as raw vegetables and dip or fresh salads can be served alongside to cut through the richness of the dish. Also make sure to include lots of crunchy bread for mopping up the sauce. When you’re ready to go just do as Andrew says: “Give each person a fork, tell them to roll their sleeves up and eat straight off the board. Good times.”
Find Silvia Colloca sharing family secrets from her very own kitchen in the brand-new series Cook like an Italian, Thursdays at 8:30pm on SBS Food from 8 January to 11 March 2020 and later on SBS On Demand. Head to the website for recipes, articles, tips and more. Follow the 'like an Italian' series here.
You can use white polenta made from white corn, if you can find it, for a more subtle result. Use the polenta as an accompaniment to a ragu of some kind, or ossobuco. Italians have told me to only stir in one direction, but I’ve found that it has made no difference to the end result when I reverse the stirring to rest my arm.