Known as one of the national foods of Italy, polenta flour is most often a ground cornmeal-based product that can be manipulated and enhanced to create many tasty modern dishes. Once a common "poor man's" food, polenta has become a satisfying, versatile staple in many worldwide diets.
Polenta is known as a traditional Italian food, but it is thought to have been a staple as far back as the Roman times. Originally made from farro grain and chestnut flour in northern Italy, polenta now commonly comes from ground maize (corn). The consistency of the cornmeal mix often identifies its Italian background; while eastern Italian polenta is often a softer, creamy mix, western Italian polenta is usually made much denser, like a corn bread.
Historically, polenta was considered peasant food since it was readily available and cheap to make. As a slow-cooked grain mush, it's an early form of porridge or gruel. This "cheap" connotation has since been forgotten as polenta is now often an ingredient in modern cooking and high-end restaurants.
The grain or flour being used for polenta is versatile and can be anything from a chickpea to a wheat base, but it is most often a mix of yellow and white cornmeal. One of the benefits of using a corn-based flour is that it keeps the food gluten-free for those who need to avoid gluten.
Polenta has been compared to Southern-style corn grits because of its consistency, but it can really take many forms. When making polenta the corn is ground to your liking; the more coarse the consistency, the more dense and breadlike the cornmeal will set, while the more finely ground, the more creamy and mashed-potato like it will be.
Polenta is an all-natural, fat-free food that remains simple and flavourful at the same time. As a symbol of poverty and basic foods, it proves to have been a good source of fibre, vitamins and minerals for those of meagre means. As an accompaniment to a complete meal (with vegetable and protein components), polenta is a great addition to a well-balanced diet. It is a healthy, natural food source that remains preservative- and gluten-free.
While still being made from the same grain or flour base, the type of polenta you eat can vary largely depending on the preparation and added ingredients. Traditionally it was slow-cooked with butter and cheese, and later, ingredients like mushrooms, tomatoes and spinach were added.
The food continues to be a staple today because of the many forms and accompaniments it can take on. It can be served as a corn bread, a porridge, fried, as polenta sticks or balls, as a mashed side or as polenta cakes. Each cooking technique is easily enhanced with additional flavours and food components; try mixing polenta with your favourite meats and vegetables to really bring out flavour. It pairs great with earthy, rustic foods like pork chops and osso bucco.
In modern cooking, polenta is versatile and can be served as an appetizer, an accompaniment to different proteins or even its own main course (depending on how you prepare the ingredient). Although polenta is traditionally slow-cooked and continuously stirred, there are now instant-polenta mixes and cooking techniques available to make the ingredient more approachable.
The future of polenta flour has to do with making it more available to the everyday household. It has been a staple in many cultures but has always been about simplicity and availability. Now polenta is eaten for its flavour and functionality.