A friend of mine once mentioned to me that polenta is “grits with a class attitude”. Now, I’m not sure about the truth of that statement, but one thing I do know is that like grits, polenta has the magical ability to absorb massive quantities of butter and cheese, and in the process, transform itself into a dish worthy of song.
Polenta is extraordinarily versatile. It goes well with almost any dish, and is for that reason, one of the glories of Italian cuisine. Soft polenta can be eaten in place of bread, or with the addition of butter and cheese, as a substitution for pasta. Pairings can range from shaved white truffles to pork and fennel sausage, to roasted autumn vegetables.
It can be chilled, then cut into slices and fried in butter. It can be transformed into “cakes”, then topped with Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or a simple tomato sauce and baked until the cheese is bubbling. Or grilled and crowned with chopped mushrooms, cooked with a touch of garlic and herbs. Or fried in olive oil until golden brown, then topped with an herb pesto or caramelized onions. The only real limit is your imagination.
I like polenta relatively unadorned. For me, that means no added butter or cheese. I love the faintly sweet, “corn-y” flavor that comes shining through which would otherwise be obscured by those additions.
Here, it’s served with squid prepared in the style of Venice, as adapted by this New York Times recipe by columnist David Tanis. Previously, Mr. Tanis was a chef at Chez Panisse, the critically-acclaimed restaurant located in Berkeley, California and founded by Alice Waters.
Venetian-style calamari, with herbs and polenta
For the polenta:
2 cups polenta cornmeal
6 cups water
1 tablespoon sea salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter — optional
Bring 6 cups lightly salted water to a boil in a pot. Remember that if you will be adding cheese to the polenta later, that a little salt in the water goes a long way. Pour in the cornmeal, stirring with a whisk or wooden spoon until it thickens, about 2 minutes. Turn the flame to low and cook for 40 to 45 minutes, stirring frequently. Stir in the unsalted butter, if using. Serve warm from the pot; alternately, allow to firm up and cut into wedges. Reheat for 10 minutes in a 400-degree oven.
For the calamari:
1 lb. squid, cleaned
freshly milled black pepper
4 tablespoons olive oil
3 to 4 garlic cloves, peeled and finely minced
1/8 teaspoon dried red pepper flakes, or more to taste
1/2 teaspoon grated lemon zest
2 tablespoons chopped mint
2 tablespoons chopped ramps — optional
2 tablespoons dry white wine
1/2 cup chopped Italian parsley
1 tablespoon chopped scallions
Juice of half a lemon
Cut the squid bodies into 1/2-inch rings. Cut the tentacles in pieces or leave whole if small. Rinse, pat dry, then place in a small bowl and season with salt and pepper.
Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over high heat until the oil looks wavy. Carefully add the squid (it will spatter) and stir to coat. Add the garlic, red pepper flakes, lemon zest, mint and ramps (if using), and cook, stirring all the while, for 1 minute, until the squid rings have puffed up and look opaque. Add the wine and cook for 1 minute more.
Turn off the heat. Stir in the Italian parsley, scallions and lemon juice.
Place a polenta wedge in the center of a shallow soup bowl. Spoon calamari and aromatics atop polenta, along with some pan juices. Serve immediately.
Time: About one hour, 15 minutes, including prep — if you elect to make the polenta prior to cooking the squid. Polenta can be made a day ahead instead.