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Real food: Polenta

Polenta is the most ancient of all Italian foods. Since the first hunter gatherers turned to farming, a version of polenta has been the staple food in parts of northern Italy.

In the 16th century, corn meal from the new world, with its bright grainy flavour, quickly usurped the bland barley and buckwheat versions.

Proper polenta is simply a mixture of yellow maize flour and water cooked for at least an hour with regular stirring and the addition of hot water.

Polenta thickens with heat and softens with water so you need to keep applying heat and boiling water and stir, stir, stir.

Most of what is available in Ireland is instant polenta. Northern Italians are quick to dismiss it as rather like instant coffee compared to espresso, but it is a good way to begin your polenta adventure.


Measure 250g of instant polenta and transfer to a jug. Bring one litre of water to the boil in a non-stick pot and add some salt. Slowly pour the polenta into the rapidly boiling water, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk. Stir for 2-3 minutes 'til the polenta thickens and produces mini volcanoes.

If using real polenta, the method is the same but you need to stir every few minutes and add additional boiling water as it cooks, often taking over an hour. Be patient, it's worth it.

You can serve the polenta as you would mashed potatoes or allow it to cool and cook in slices on a hot ridged frying pan.

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