Polenta and Shrimp, a Marriage of Land and Sea
I have written effusively and often about polenta, the delectable Northern Italian porridge made from cornmeal. Fan that I am, polenta for dinner is always a winner in my book.
We may know it first and foremost as a side dish: a modest spoonful placed next to a piece of braised chicken, or a crisp, grilled wedge accompanying herby lamb chops. But I usually want polenta to be the main event, and to have the meaty part of the meal play the lesser role, much as it was served long ago.
Polenta’s humble origins lay in basic, savory gruel for the poorer classes. Good fortune in hunting or foraging could supply ingredients for a juicy, substantial ragù to ladle on top. But even today, there’s nothing better than a bowl of plain polenta with a dab of good butter or olive oil, salt and pepper, and a handful of grated Parmesan.
Modern Italian cooks follow suit, topping polenta with sausages simmered in tomato sauce, a mushroom stew or braised rabbit. And the custom still exists, for those remembering or imagining village life, of pouring a pot of steaming polenta on a large board, spooning a saucy concoction over it, and placing it on the table for communal consumption and distributing spoons instead of plates. It’s a wonderful way to serve a casual festive meal.
The other night, with polenta on the brain and with a pound of fresh wild Gulf shrimp from the fishmonger, I made an impromptu dinner. I channeled, sort of, the Southern American favorite, shrimp and grits, and set my polenta to boil.
A word of warning, though: For the best results, polenta needs a good 45 minutes to an hour on the stove. Recipes that counsel any less do cooks a disservice. The cornmeal needs time to swell, absorb liquid and develop the corn’s sweetness. Undercooked polenta tastes bitter.
While the polenta cooked, I peeled the shrimp and gathered the other ingredients for a spicy stew: a few hot Italian fennel sausages, an onion, some tomato purée and a splash of wine. The stew itself takes only about 15 minutes to cook.
There, on a large platter, was a golden mound of polenta, surrounded by a full-flavored, aromatic, saucy partnership of land and sea. I quickly chopped up some scallions, parsley, capers and lemon zest to sprinkle over everything.
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