I had polenta on the brain the other day. The image in my mind’s eye was bright and sunny, and so was my mood. That polenta should be my idea of comfort food is perhaps a bit odd. I never had it as a child, so it’s not about nostalgia. But polenta, when cooked properly, is truly heavenly.
I’m not even sure when I picked up the habit; I can only say that, having cooked hundreds of pots of polenta and eaten it all over Italy, I’m a zealous fan. I’ll gladly make polenta today just to have leftovers.
Though you can cook polenta in a pressure cooker, microwave or other devices, I still prefer doing it the old-fashioned way, on the stovetop, stirring occasionally. That way I can nurse it along, adding liquid as necessary to keep it smooth.
Somewhere in my travels, I heard about a traditional, communal approach called polenta sul tavolo or polenta alla spianatora — essentially, hot polenta poured on a large, round board and brought to the table.
In some renditions, the polenta is poured directly on a scrubbed tabletop instead of a board. A meaty red sauce is spooned over the top, followed by a shower of grated cheese. Everyone is seated, fork in hand, for a casual family-style meal, with diners attacking the polenta from the board’s edge and working toward the center. (It’s a concept you either love or hate, but what’s not to love?) It’s sort of like a giant pizza and a whole lot of fun.
This polenta would be an ideal centerpiece, I thought, for a dinner party menu. I have always enjoyed the process of composing menus and visualizing results as much as I enjoy preparing a meal. In my new monthly column, I’ll be addressing the details of putting together a meal and focusing on creating simple, cohesive menus that make sense on many levels. My goal is to make them seasonally appropriate and mouthwatering, yet not too taxing for home cooks. Informality will be key.
There will be some menus where everything goes on the table at once, others that are better served in courses. Each will be celebratory, and all are meals that I would cook for my own guests.
Since the polenta here was rather hearty, I chose a crisp, lemony salad of raw fennel and celery to start (you could add thinly sliced celery root to the salad as well), garnished with radishes and slightly bitter Treviso or radicchio leaves. Don’t slice the vegetables paper-thin; you want the salad to have some crunch. I often serve this as a sort of antipasto, with an accompanying platter of salumi and some olives.
For dessert, roasted pears make a beautiful statement and look decidedly autumnal. Aromatic with spices, burnished with caramel and splashed with rum, they can be prepared up to a day in advance. Served warm, they make a lovely, not-too-fancy finish for this convivial rustic repast.
As you peruse this October menu, note the simplicity, but also the utter attractiveness and the pleasant variations in texture throughout the meal. It’s the exact opposite of a posh dinner party, but one your guests will be sure to love.