Many of our modern foods derive from ancient dishes that were created out of the necessity for easily made, easily stored staples and readily available ingredients. Polenta is one such dish. Today we’re bringing you a modern version showing the versatility of this ingredient with a delightful Cheesy Polenta and Egg Casserole. Before we dig in, though, let’s find out how modern polenta made its way onto our plates.
Nowadays we often enjoy polenta served in a fine Italian restaurant surrounded by rich marinara sauces and expertly cooked meats, but in ancient times this dish was eaten by the poorest groups because it was cheap and simple to prepare. Originally called pulse pottage, it offered peasants a way to survive with very few resources. Depending on the region and time period, it ranged from a runny porridge to a crumbly cake and could be whipped up with ingredients at hand. Throughout antiquity it was made with different flours based on what was available. In Roman times, spelt flour was the main ingredient. Eventually other grains would make their way into the pottage, including wheat, barley, millet, sorghum and more. Northern Italians who lived among the abundant chestnut trees used chestnut flour in their version of the staple dish.
In the late 15th and early 16th centuries, corn, or maize, was brought to Italy from the New World and corn flour quickly replaced all other flours in the production of pulse pottage. The pottage slowly evolved into what we know today as polenta. In the New World polenta was being eaten by the colonists, but was regularly called mush. Again, it was an easy and inexpensive source of food and could be prepared in a variety of ways. It is said that some colonists called it “polenta” because they thought it sounded more dignified. In Italy, corn and thus polenta grew in popularity among both the poor and the rich classes. By the 18th century, “corn had become a hedge against famine for the peasants of the northern provinces and, for the nobility, a version of pastoral,” a popular affectation of the period. Numerous recipes using polenta were developed in both Italy and the United States.
Such a humble beginning, but such an impactful history. Polenta undoubtedly saved millions from starvation throughout antiquity and into modern times.
So savor this breakfast polenta, a modern dish with an important ancient past. Buon appetito!
Cheesy Polenta and Egg Casserole
* Recipe courtesy of EatingWell.com
Total Time Cooking and Preparation: 1 hr and 5 minutes
- 1 tablespoon plus 2 teaspoons of extra-virgin olive oil, divided
- 1/3 cup of finely chopped onion
- 4 cups of water, plus more as needed
- 1 cup of yellow cornmeal, (see Shopping Tip)
- 1/2 teaspoon of salt
- 6 ounces of Italian turkey sausage, casing removed
- 1/2 cup of shredded fontina, or mozzarella
- 1/2 cup of grated Parmigiano-Reggiano, divided
- 6 large eggs
- Heat 1 tablespoon oil in a large saucepan or Dutch oven over medium heat. Add onion and cook, stirring, until softened, but not browned, 2 to 3 minutes. Add 4 cups water and bring to a boil. Gradually whisk cornmeal into the boiling water. Add salt and cook over medium heat, whisking constantly until the polenta bubbles, 1 to 2 minutes. Reduce heat to low and cook, whisking frequently, until very thick, 10 to 15 minutes. (Alternatively, once the polenta comes to a boil, transfer it to the top of a double boiler, cover, and place over barely simmering water for 25 minutes. This is convenient, because you don’t need to stir it as it cooks.)
- Meanwhile, heat the remaining 2 teaspoons oil in a large skillet over medium heat and add sausage. Cook, stirring and breaking the sausage into small pieces with a spoon, until lightly browned and no longer pink, about 4 minutes. Drain if necessary and transfer to a cutting board; let cool. Finely chop when cool enough to handle.
- Position rack in upper third of oven; preheat to 350°F. Coat a 9-by-13-inch baking pan with cooking spray.
- When the polenta is done, stir in fontina (or mozzarella) and 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano. If the polenta seems too stiff, add small amounts of water to thin it to a thick but not stiff consistency. Spread the polenta in the prepared pan.
- Make six 2-inch-wide indentations in the polenta with the back of a tablespoon. Break eggs, one at a time, into a custard cup and slip one into each indentation. Scatter the sausage on the polenta and sprinkle the remaining 1/4 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano evenly on top of the eggs.
- Bake the casserole for 15 minutes. Then broil until the egg whites are set, 2 to 4 minutes. Let stand for 5 minutes before serving.
 “The Food Timeline–history notes: algae to creamed onions.” The Food Timeline–history notes: algae to creamed onions. N.p., n.d. Web. 31 May 2014. <http://www.foodtimeline.org/foodfaq.html#polenta>.
 Capatti, Alberto, and Massimo Montanari. Italian cuisine a cultural history. New York: Columbia University Press, 2003. Print.
 Ayto, John, and John Ayto. An A-Z of food and drink. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
 Fussell, Betty Harper. The story of corn. New York: Knopf, 1992. Print.