The first time I ever tasted polenta was a revelation. I was 14, and staying with my Italian exchange and her family in the hills above Lago di Como. They had a terrace supporting gnarled twisted grape vines, where we sat watching the sun set as mamma Raffaeli stirred an enormous skillet of polenta, with a correspondingly huge wooden paddle, throwing in handfuls of parmesan shavings at regular intervals. I had never even heard of polenta, let alone tasted it. Papa Raffaeli was trying to teach me the words to a Roman drinking ballad, belting out: “Fatece largo che passiamo noi, sti giovanotti de’sta Roma bella” in a rich baritone and then falling about with laughter as I joined in.
That first mouthful was sublime. I have been trying to recreate it ever since. I’m not sure I ever will – but I have, at least, managed to make a polenta dish that doesn’t taste insipid. It’s a start.
This dish would be a lot of work to make from scratch. I relied on the leftover cheese sauce I had in the freezer from my tartine hollandaise adventure, and the tomato sauce I made earlier in the week, so all I had to do was grill some courgettes and nurse the polenta.
For the tomato sauce:
2 red onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
2 small packs lardons
2 tins chopped tomatoes
A splash of balsamic vinegar
1 tsp sugar
1 chicken stock cube
A handful chopped fresh basil
1 bay leaf
Fry the lardons, onions and garlic on a medium heat until browned, throw in the tomatoes, balsamic vinegar, sugar, stock cube, bay leaf and basil. Stir well and simmer on a low heat for 30 minutes.
For the courgettes:
2 large courgettes, sliced finely lengthways
A good drizzle of basil oil
Salt and pepper
Toss the courgettes in the oil and season, place under a hot grill for 5-10 minutes, turning regularly, until the slices become translucent and browned. Keep an eye on them, it’s all to easy to forget and burn the lot!
For the polenta:
50g parmesan, grated
salt and pepper to taste
For the cheese sauce:
Ingredients and recipe here – no need to use gouda, mature cheddar will work just fine.
Pre heat the oven to 180C.
In a heavy bottomed saucepan or frying pan, add the polenta and slowly add the water, stirring all the while. Once all the water is absorbed, add the butter and cheese and season generously. Stir over the heat for 5-10 minutes until you have a thick, smooth paste.
Now layer up all the elements in a baking dish (or individual ramekins) as if you were making a lasagna: tomato sauce, then polenta, then courgettes and repeat until you near the top of the dish. The final layer should be cheese sauce, covered with a sprinkling of grated cheese.
Bake in the oven for 30 minutes. Serve with crusty bread and a green salad.