In 2004, Food and Wine published an article about superstar chef Mario Batali’s kitchen reno. Of course, I love a good home make over, but what I loved even more was the very soft polenta with rock shrimp ragout recipe published alongside descriptions of Batali’s fridge placement and countertop choices. The rock shrimp are lovely, but the true appeal of this dish is definitely the polenta. Here’s how F&W sums it up:
This is Batali’s variation on a classic dish from the coastal villages outside of Trieste, where the fresh seafood is among the most prized in the world. The polenta that accompanies the shrimp must be very soft, almost saucelike. “Thick, lumpy polenta is criminal in that part of Italy, and justly so,” Batali says.
Truthfully, I imagine poorly prepared polenta is nearly criminal anywhere, but especially in Italy. Sure, we most often think of pasta and pizza when we think of the small boot-shaped nation, but “Italian grits” have a prominent role in Italian cooking throughout the country. The medium to coarsely ground cornmeal has its roots in the region long before Italy was united.
Allegedly Roman legions and peasants alike enjoyed polenta (aka pulmentum) in the form of a porridge or a cake. Of course, this was before the discovery of the new world and maize, so pulmentum was most likely made from buckwheat or grano saraceno. When corn made its way across the ocean and maize crops took root, the switch was made to milling cornmeal and polenta.
For a long time, I didn’t really understand the difference between cornmeal and polenta. (Or cornmeal and grits. Or cornmeal and masa.) Even now, I’m still not 100 percent sure, though I’m not alone.
First and foremost, traditionally grits are made from hominy not cornmeal. (Although it turns out I really like “grits” from cornmeal. Probably because I really like cornmeal be it cornbread or polenta.) Cornmeal vs polenta – that’s more an issue of the grind itself. Cornmeal is more finely ground that polenta. Or, perhaps I should say, more finely ground than even the most finely ground polenta, as polenta is widely available in a variety of textures – fine, medium and coarsely ground. These variations result in very different final results.
In addition to confusion around what polenta is, this little grain has a unmerited reputation for being hard to make. Allegedly little old Italian ladies had to use a special, long-handled wooden spoon and an even more special copper bottomed pot and stir, stir, stir for hours to make polenta just perfect. Quite simply, this just isn’t necessary.
Batali’s recipe, adapted below, calls for quick cook polenta. This may be my favorite invention ever. It makes it so easy, so fast to whip up a dish of polenta. When I’m adding more seasoning, I use the traditional, even though it takes about 20 whole minutes. (whew!)
One of the things I’ve noticed about polenta is that it is popular with everyone, especially vegetarians. The first time I ever experienced it was in a cake form as a base for a lovely little southwestern dish with black beans, tomatoes and fresh sour cream. (Zulu’s I think that place was called. It’s long gone now, but was the space where the Red Lion is now.)
I haven’t yet experimented with a vegetarian adaptation of this Batali dish. The polenta itself is very simple; it’s highlights are the creamy texture and the sweet, tomato-y flavors in the seafood topping. I’m curious to hear your thoughts on vegetable substitutions to pile on this lovely base, so, please let me know your ideas.
Very Soft Polenta with Bay Scallop Ragout
As mentioned above, this dish is adapted from a Mario Batali recipe published in Food & Wine. As Kirk is allergic to shellfish, we substitute small bay scallops for the rock shrimp originally specified in the instructions. This is a wonderful variation and a perfect way to use the scallops. So often their sweetness is distracting in a dish. Here it is a wonderful complement to the tomato and lemon. Best thing? This dish is easy and quick making it a perfect weeknight meal!
- 1 tablespoon sugar
- 1 cup quick-cooking polenta (6 ounces)
- 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 scallions, thinly sliced
- 1/2 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- 3 tablespoons tomato paste
- 1/2 cup dry white wine
- 1 1/2 pounds bay scallops
- 1/4 cup coarsely chopped flat-leaf parsley
- 1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice
- 1 1/2 teaspoons finely grated lemon zest
- Freshly ground pepper
- In a medium saucepan, bring 5 cups of water to a boil with the sugar. Whisk in the polenta in a thin stream. Cook over low heat, stirring constantly, until thickened, about 5 minutes. Remove from the heat. Stir in 3 tablespoons of the olive oil and season with salt. Press a piece of parchment or wax paper directly onto the surface of the polenta and keep warm.
- In a large skillet, heat the remaining 3 tablespoons of olive oil. Add the scallions and crushed red pepper and cook over moderate heat for 1 minute. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until slightly darkened, about 3 minutes. Add the wine and 1/4 cup of water and simmer over moderately high heat for 1 minute. Add the scallops and simmer, stirring, until just cooked through, about 3 minutes. Stir in the parsley, lemon juice and lemon zest and season with salt and pepper. Remove from the heat.
- Rewarm the polenta over moderately high heat, whisking constantly. Spoon a pool of polenta in the center of 8 shallow bowls. Spoon the scallops and sauce over and around the polenta and serve right away.