– Whatever happened to polenta?
I don’t quite remember what we were talking about but suddenly the conversation turned to polenta. My grandmother remembered the days of polenta well. She enjoyed it. Made it regularly. But at some point it disappeared from the supermarket shelves. Other, more fashionable items took its place.
Polenta is a northern Italian dish made from dried and crushed corn. In fact, the Romans were making polenta long before corn made its way to Italy, using farro, chestnut flower, spelt, chickpeas or whatever took their fancy on the day. But today, it is the corn variety we call polenta.
If well prepared, polenta is high level comfort food. As the days turn just a little shorter every day, the weather turns colder and more unpredictable and the winter wardrobe is taken out of its storage bags, very few things can beat a beautiful bowl of polenta. Especially if, as I usually make it, it has lots of butter and cheese in it.
And so it is that, in praise of this underrecognised ingredient, I take a step west from my usual eastern Mediterranean or Middle Eastern influences and propose a marriage of the Italian North and South: polenta, from the North, and caponata, from the South. Because if you’re going to have a buttery, cheesy polenta, it needs a contrast. The sweet and sour of caponata is a perfect match.
If, as my grandmother, you can’t easily find polenta where you live, a good Italian deli should stock it. In Turkey I sometimes find it in the gluten free shelves, sold as gluten free bulgur. Go figure. I usually go for the quick or instant variety, which has been parboiled, if available. It saves you half an hour from preparing regular polenta and the difference in taste is minimal.
The recipe for caponata is (very) loosely based on a recipe from one of The River Cafe’s cookbooks. The River Cafe is one of London’s best Italian restaurants and somewhat of an institution in West London with alumni including Jamie Oliver and Sam & Sam Clarke of Moro/Morito (my favourite restaurants in London). One of my variations which will probably cause some Sicilian curses is roasting the vegetables instead of frying them before mixing with the salt and sour elements. I find roasting adds more depth of flavour, and of course it doesn’t hurt that it makes the whole thing easier to cook.
Serve the polenta and caponata with a green rocket salat with a little good quality extra virgin olive oil and lemon juice or balsamic vinegar. Serves two to three.
- 1 aubergine, peeled in zebra stripes and cut into rough chunks
- 2 red romano peppers, core, membrane and seeds removed, cut into rough chunks
- 2 tomatoes, halved or quartered
- 1 red onion, peeled and cut into 8 wedges
- 4+1 tbsp olive oil
- 1 tbsp capers, rinsed and drained
- 1 tbsp red wine vinegar
- 1 garlic clove, peeled and thinly sliced
- 1/2 – 1 red chili (to taste), finely chopped
- 8 green olives, stone removed, roughly chopped
- salt and pepper
- 750 ml chicken or vegetable stock (or water, though stock is preferable)
- 125 g polenta (quick or instant variety is fine)
- 50 g butter, in cubes
- 100 g shredded mature cheese such as parmesan or cheddar (I use Turkish eski kaşar)
- 3/4 tsp dried rosemary
- salt and pepper
- 2 tbsp pine nuts, lightly toasted in a dry pan
- 1 tbsp finely chopped flat leaf parsley or another herb to taste
- Preheat the oven to 200 C.
- Mix the aubergine, romano peppers, tomatoes and red onion with 4 tbsp olive oil and a little salt and pepper (keeping in mind the capers and olives will add more saltness later). Spread on a baking tray and roast until the vegetables are nearly soft, 30-40 minutes. Leave to cool a little. Deskin and roughly chop the tomatoes, discarding the skin.
- If using regular polenta (not quick/instant), heat the stock and add polenta while stirring. Keep stirring until thickened, put on a lid and leave to simmer on low heat until soft, 30-40 minutes, stirring regularly. Add more stock if the polenta is too thick, it should have a porridge like consistency.
- Mix the drained capers and red wine vinegar and set aside.
- Gently fry the garlic and chili in 1 tbsp olive oil for 20-30 seconds, stirring constantly. Don’t burn the garlic, it will leave a bitter taste. Add the roasted vegetables, the olives and the caper and vinegar mixture. Stir gently and season. Leave on low heat for a few minutes to allow the flavours to mingle.
- If using quick/instant polenta, heat the stock and add polenta while stirring. Keep stirring until thickened and soft, typically 8-10 minutes. Add more stock if the polenta is too thick, it should have a porridge like consistency.
- When the polenta is soft (whether using regular or quick/instant), add butter, cheese and rosemary. Season.
- Serve the polenta immediately in individual portions, topped with the caponata. Sprinkle over the toasted pine nuts and chopped parsley.