I grew up in a very midland Slavic household, brought up mostly by my grandparents. It was a pretty idyllic and very traditional household, with, above all, very traditional food. And while polenta was on the menu, it was mostly a breakfast dish, the yellow one eaten with milked coffee, the white with sour cream. As I grew older, and moved away to a new environment with a different cuisine, the polenta vanished from my life. It was old fashioned, and neither my mother or step-father had any interest in it.
My husband, on the other hand, grew up with Mediterranean cuisine where polenta is an eternal staple food, and while I thoroughly enjoyed discovering new dishes it can be paired with as we visited his family down by the sea, I also discovered that my husband, simply put, does not care for it in the least. Poor polenta, it was once again banished from my household.
But people and diets change, especially when the hearty Slavic cuisine I was used to preparing and eating starts putting on a few extra inches to your waistline as you grow older, and the doctors suggest that a lighter diet might be preferential to your overall health.
This meant that a lot more Mediterranean dishes entered our household, that fluffy white bread was replaced with sourdough, cured pork and sausages gave way to fish and poultry, and that maybe, just maybe, there was a chance for the boring polenta to re-enter my life.
The perfect excuse for it came last weekend. Husband came back from a day-trip to the seaside with a dish his father prepared especially for us. When asked about the name, I was informed it was “just marinated fish”, but to me it looked and smelled like heaven. Fried fish fillets were layered in a marinade of sautéed onions, garlic, olives and capers. “You can eat it cold, with whatever you like”, I was informed. “How about…how about polenta?”, I carefully asked my husband? “Sure.”
Hooray! The polenta is finally ready to enter our household!
Ah, but I cannot just make any boring old polenta, that will just simply not do. It has to be a bit special, it has to make a grand entrance, make a valid first impression.
The basic recipe calls for 5 parts water to one part polenta, so this is what I put to boil. 2 and a half cups of water. I also added some finely chopped rosemary from my own rosemary bush on the balcony, and some French melty goat cheese, because why not?
As soon as the water started to boil, I added the half cup of polenta to it and waited for the magic to happen.
I vaguely remembered my grandmother stirring it vigorously on the stove, perhaps cussing, so I stood there, head bent slightly over the pot, stirring and waiting for it to start thickening. It didn’t.
Perhaps I have the amounts wrong, I thought, and checked the math and the instructions on the bag again. No, the math was correct, and the instructions state it can take up to ten minutes of cooking for the serving size they suggest. The serving size they suggest could feed a small army. By that time, I noticed that the polenta was starting to thicken. And bubble and spit!
And this is kind of where it all went lopsided and why strangers in the street give me strange looks these days.
Polenta bubbles and spits as it thickens, and while a smarter person than I would have probably turned down the heat, my solution was to stir faster, to combat the spitting. I mean, it works for so many other dishes! Except, of course, it didn’t. A bubble of polenta burst and two molten blobs flew straight into my face. One hit me high on the cheek, and the other managed to miraculously miss my eye, but it did hit me just below.
The polenta did not burn, for those wondering, and neither did I. Well, not a lot anyway. In a miraculous moment of dexterity, I managed to pull it off the stove and grab a tea towel to press against my cheek. It didn’t really hurt that much either, after that first shocking moment, but I am walking around with what looks like an almost healed shiner, which looks really strange on a woman of slight build and below average height
The polenta did turn out very delicious though, and there were no leftovers, but I can now see that it is a dish deserving of reverence, caution, and perhaps, a lot more practice than I expected.