Growing up in a big multiethnic city I often shared meals with the family of one of my best friends, Gina. Her parents came from a village in northern Italy, and her mother served up a delicious dish called polenta with almost every meal. For breakfast the cornmeal was served soft and smooth; almost like porridge, topped with a little butter, milk and sugar. At other meals, it was served as a side dish, soaking up the juices of a thick ragout. I forgot about polenta until years later, when many top restaurants began adding it to their menus.
Pack along polenta…
For many paddlers, March marks the time when the ice starts breaking up on rivers and lakes, and the preparations for another paddling season take root. Equipment and gear is carefully inspected and cleaned, maps are consulted, itineraries are prepared, and the camping kitchen kit is revisited.
There are a few food staples that lend themselves especially well to paddling expeditions: rice, pasta, oatmeal, legumes. It is always exciting when you can add to the list of staples that pack up easily, keep for a long time, can be cooked up rapidly and provide a solid nutritional base.
Polenta is an ingredient that I believe you should add to your list. It is easily carried along on paddling expeditions of any length and it provides a tasty alternative to pasta, rice or other grains. It can be served up as a side dish or become a key ingredient in almost any main course.
The poor man's meal…
For centuries, polenta was considered the poor man's meal in northern Italy. In its earliest incarnation, it was the staple of Roman soldiers' diet made from millet or spelt. The soldiers would grind the grain and boil it into a gruel-like porridge. The meal became a basic foodstuff for northern Italy's rural population. It wasn't until explorers brought maize back from the new World in the 15th century that corn replaced other grains in the making of polenta. Since corn was an easy crop to grow in northern Italy, it soon replaced other cereals in the region, and polenta began replacing bread and pasta.
Slow burn energy…
The nutritional base of polenta comes from its starches, carotenes, fats, vitamins and minerals. Since it is a complex carbohydrate at the low end of the glycemic index, it breaks down slowly in the blood; perfect for a paddler who is looking for slow-released energy. It can supply good amounts of iron, thiamin, zinc, phosphorus and magnesium. And for those who can't eat gluten, polenta is a good grain alternative.
Purists will tell you that polenta should be cooked from scratch (see recipe below), but it is also available pre-cooked (like oatmeal) and when it is stirred slowly into boiling water can be ready in five minutes. For camping trips, the pre-cooked polenta is a good alternative. But I'll give you the basic recipe anyway, since polenta prepared in advance can be kept for two or three days at room temperature. Any way you cut it, polenta is a great addition to your basic paddling kitchen.
Basic Soft Polenta (4 to 6 portions)
In a saucepan, bring the liquid and the salt to a boil over medium-high heat. Pour the polenta slowly and stir with a whisk to combine and to prevent clumps. Reduce the heat and cook the polenta uncover for about 20 minutes, stirring frequently to keep it smooth. Cook until the mixture thickens and the polenta is cooked. Remove from heat, add butter or olive oil. Make sure the polenta stays creamy. Add more milk or cream at the end of the process if necessary.
If you want to add cheese, pepper or fresh herbs you can add it at the same time as you add butter or olive oil.
To serve the polenta grilled: Remove cooked polenta from heat and spread evenly on a cooking board covered with parchment paper or on a plate to let it cool. Cut into squares and grill on a barbecue or in a hot pan with oil or butter for a few minutes on each side. Serve with your favorite toppings.
Broccoli and dry sausage soft polenta
Cook the polenta as described previously, either in milk or in water, to taste. 5 minutes before the end of cooking add all the ingredients, except cheese, and keep cooking, stirring frequently. When cooked, remove from heat, add black pepper and cheese and stir with a wooden spoon. Serve immediately.
Tuna polenta squares
Prepare polenta as explained previously and follow the instructions for grilled polenta squares.
While polenta cools, heat a skillet and add olive oil. Add onion and pepper and cook over medium-high heat for 5 minutes. Add the rest of the ingredients, except cheese, and cook 2 more minutes. Set aside and keep warm.
Cut polenta in squares and cook in the same hot pan as the tuna mixture with a bit of olive oil until grilled on both sides. Add the tuna mixture, sprinkle with cheese. Cover the pan and cook 2 more minutes to make sure everything is hot. Serve immediately.
For a vegetarian version: Replace tuna with crumbled tofu and add 1 tsp. curry powder. You can also make this recipe in a creamy version. Just add 1/2 cup more milk or cream and mix the tuna mixture in the polenta when it is cooked.
Polenta with Italian ragout
(4 to 6 portions)
In one pot, prepare polenta as explained previously. In the meantime, in a large skillet cook onion wedges in hot olive oil for 5 minutes over medium-high heat. Add zucchinis and eggplant and cook 5 more minutes. Add garlic, chickpeas and tomato sauce and bring to a boil, stirring frequently.
When soft polenta is ready, remove from heat, add remaining cream and grated cheese and pour into large bowls, top with ragout and sprinkle with cheese. Serve.
Cook soft polenta as explained previously (without thyme). When almost done, add all ingredients and cook 2 more minutes. Pour into 4 bowls, add more milk on top and serve.
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