Once considered peasant food, versatile polenta becomes a delicious, satisfying side dish with the addition of fresh sage, bacon and corn. Recipe below.
Even current descriptions of polenta reflect its humble beginnings: “Mush.” “Boiled cornmeal.” But despite this apparent image problem, it has been a popular staple throughout Italy just about forever—in fact, in Northern Italy, it outshines pasta. And in recent years, it’s gotten the star treatment makeover, going from humble to haute on numerous high-end restaurant menus.
Traditional polenta is generally slow cooked to a creamy consistency and usually includes some kind of cheese. It sets up pretty firmly as it cools and can be cut into squares or sticks or shaped into balls and fried for a completely different approach. Beyond these basics, there seem to be countless variations on the theme; just a search on Epicurious.com turns up nearly 150 polenta recipes. On its own, “boiled cornmeal” tastes about as bland as it sounds—it’s one of those ingredients, though, that takes on other flavors beautifully. When I came across a recipe in Bon Appétit that called for bacon and sage, I knew I was on to something.
Sage has been around even longer than polenta, going back at least to the ancient Egyptians. This Mediterranean herb has been popular both as a food flavoring and for medicinal uses. In fact, according to Epicurious [don't you just love the Internet?], its name “comes from a derivative of the Latin salvus, meaning ‘safe,’ a reference to the herb’s believed healing powers.”
The flavor of sage has been described as pungent, peppery, minty, woodsy… the last couple of times I’ve been chopping up fresh sage, I’ve also picked up more than a hint of licorice. Its big, aromatic flavor is why you find it called for in sausages, poultry and game stuffings and rich meats like pork, goose and duck.
Sage is also directly responsible for me making polenta this week. We haven’t had a garden for a couple of years now—and even if we had one, it would be dormant right now. So fresh herbs come from farmers markets and—more often—supermarkets, where small clamshell containers typically set you back a couple clams or so. And all too often, I buy these precious commodities for a specific dish and then promptly forget that I have them around for other possible uses until I find their shriveled remains weeks later. So this weekend when I made some rosemary sage chops for a relaxed family lunch, I was determined to make use of my leftover fresh herbs. I’m always finding uses for fresh rosemary; I used the sage to make this easy polenta dish. The hardest part was actually finding the polenta. You can also substitute yellow cornmeal—I’ll explain in the Kitchen Notes.
Bacon Sage Polenta
Serves 4 to 5
Adapted from a recipe in Bon Appétit
4 slices bacon, chopped into 1/2-inch pieces
1 tablespoon chopped fresh sage
1 cup frozen corn kernels, thawed
4 cups water, plus extra as needed
1 cup polenta, traditional or quick cook, but not precooked tubes [see Kitchen Notes—seriously]
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
slat and freshly ground pepper, to taste
Cook bacon in heavy, large nonstick skillet over medium heat until crisp [I used a 5-quart sauté pan, which was perfect]. Using slotted spoon, transfer bacon to paper towels to drain. Pour off all but 1 tablespoon of fat from skillet. Add sage and corn; sauté 1 minute. Add 4 cups water and increase heat to medium-high and bring to boil. Gradually whisk in polenta.
Reduce heat to low; cook until polenta begins to thicken, stirring frequently, about 20 minutes, if you’re using traditional polenta. For quick cooking polenta, total cooking time will be about 5 minutes. Also, as you “gradually” stir it in, it will thicken quickly—alarmingly even. If needed, add more water 1/2 cup at a time. Being stuck with the quick-cooking variety, I ended up adding a little more than a cup of extra water. Stir in Parmesan cheese and bacon. Season with salt and pepper. Serve immediately.
First, how was it? Quite good, in some surprising ways. First, the bacon didn’t take over, as I feared it might, especially since I used bacon grease in addition to the bacon itself. But I really only tasted bacon when I encountered bits of actual cooked bacon in the polenta. Second, the sage made itself known in the dish without overpowering—I feared it might disappear altogether. And the corn kernels added a nice bit of textural interest. With the cheese, err on the generous side—it really does add to the character. And I know this goes without saying, but please, please, please don’t use the canned stuff. Even a modest freshly grated Parmesan cheese blows right past the canned stuff.
Desperately seeking polenta. I obsess about the most random things, especially given the things that don’t cause me to obsess. We cook quick oats for breakfast instead of the mythic steel cut, for instance. When we’re in the mood for grits [a relative of polenta from the American South], quick grits are just fine. But I really wanted old-fashioned ground polenta for this dish, the stuff that takes 20 or more minutes to cook. I went to four different stores on my polenta quest. All I could find were the quick cook or worse, the tubes of precooked polenta. The latter is primarily meant to be sliced and fried. There are directions for reconstituting it into a creamy version, but there’s now way you’ll incorporate the bacon, sage and corn into it. Eventually I settled for the quick cook variety.
But the quest isn’t over for me, not by a long shot. I know there are Italian grocers in this town who stock the real deal. I intend to seek them out, because I haven’t even scratched the surface on this humble but oh, so intriguing dish.
In a pinch, use yellow cornmeal. Use the same amount as polenta and cook it for about 10 minutes. If I hadn’t been obsessing, I might have done this.