Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Brown-Butter Polenta

My friend Ali and I met when we were three. Then we were in kindergarten together, and then first grade, and then she switched schools and we only lived five blocks apart, but never got to be in the same class again. Until junior year of college, when we conspired to spend the same semester in Florence. And it was heavenly. Better, even, than Mrs. Houk’s first-grade class! Better than pretty much anything.

Mostly what we did, of course, was eat. We ate enormous, oily tuna and artichoke sandwiches at the Antico Noe hole under a bridge shop. We ate risotto ai fruiti di mare, filled with fat clams and chewy calamari, at the cheap and wonderful trattoria where we ended up dating the chef and waiter (long story short: a mistake—the boys, not the risotto). We ate dishes of ribolitta, dark with something called black cabbage that we would, years later, come to know at home as kale. We ate gelato every single day. We ate ravioli so freshly formed that we could still see the old woman’s thumbprints in the dough. We ate blood oranges and gorgonzola and gnocchi, and we gained twenty pounds each. We drank a lot of wine.

You have to look at cornmeal because I do not seem to have the emotional fortitude to get out my Italy photo album. Sigh.
Also, we ate polenta in a tiny cavelike trattoria run from the same kitchen as the city’s famous and expensive Cibrèo restaurant. You could not eat there and not feel like you were getting away with something, because while the chic Italian silk-and-suede crowd paid a small fortune get fussed over with white linen and crystal water glasses, we ate the same food out back, on long wooden benches at long wooden tables, and the dishes we ordered cost $5 each. One was a heap of clams the size of your fingernail that arrived in a garlicky, tomato-y broth with a hunk of charred bread. The other was the polenta, and this polenta no longer exists anywhere but in my memory.

The polenta associated online with Cibrèo seems to involve masses of herbs, and I’m sure it’s delicious. But the one we ordered (over and over again) in 1989 was simpler: a mound of tender cornmeal, a moat of melted butter, a shower of parmesan and—Ali, I need you—green peppercorns? Maybe it was just black pepper, but I think it might have been green. It was as perfect a dish of food as I’ve ever eaten anywhere, and Ali was the perfect person to eat it with. To spend my life being friends with. To shepherd out of life, even, because lying around with her was so great, even at the end. But she’s the worst person to be left by, because there’s nobody else who remembers the same thing as me, and everything I forgot to ask her I will now never know. And I kind of can’t get over how much that sucks.
Ali and Ben. 
 But at least this polenta is pretty fucking close. Ali would love it. Try making your polenta this way—in the oven—even if you’re using it for something else, because it is basically foolproof and incredibly easy and hands-off. But do use some milk in it, which makes it all the more fabulous, and do consider serving it with the brown butter, because you will swoon. Birdy eats hers with a poached egg, and although that is much more Instagram-worthy, as a dish of food, I am being a purist here.

Brown-Butter Polenta

2 cups whole milk (use at least a cup of milk to 3 of water, but half milk is even better)
2 cups water
1 cup coarse cornmeal
2 teaspoons Diamond kosher salt (or half as much table salt)
4 tablespoons butter, divided use
1 cup freshly grated parmesan
Freshly ground black pepper

Heat the oven to 350. Pour the milk and water into a deep, lidded oven-proof casserole (not a huge one), and whisk in the cornmeal and salt. Put the pot in the oven and bake for 50 minutes.

Remove the polenta from the oven and whisk it. If the cornmeal isn’t tender or there’s still liquid in the pot, put it back in the oven for ten minutes, but otherwise, whisk in half the butter and half the cheese, then cover the polenta and let it sit while you brown the butter.

Melt the rest of the butter in a very small pan over medium heat, then continue cooking it, swirling the pan constantly, until the butter gets golden-brown and smells nutty and insane, another 3 or 4 minutes. Remember that it will cook for a bit longer after you turn the heat off, so maybe err on the side of cooking it to short.

Divide the polenta into “4” (ahem, really only three) bowls and top each with a spoonful of brown butter, a flurry of parmesan, and a good grinding of black pepper.

A poached egg can be added!


  1. I have to tell you - I pinned this recipe, and Pinterest suggested I should pin it to "IT'S SPRING!" which just seemed so fun. POLENTA! SPRING!

    I mean, I put it in my boring "recipes to try" folder, but I feel uplifted anyway.

  2. Anonymous1:10 PM

    Sounds so delicious. And, oh, so hard to lose someone like your Ali. I'm so sorry. You were lucky, she was lucky, and oh, so hard, still, and always, to lose someone like your Ali.

  3. Yes! My mother used to give up this for breakfast, minus the cheese. She poured the brown butter around the edges and you would eat from the edge so you got browned butter with every bite. And get this - she would put a little pitcher of browned butter on the table and we would just pour more around the edge as we ate! I loved this stuff. The odd part is that my my mother's family was german and my fathers slovak - both 3rd generation, so I am not sure how or why we were eating polenta for breakfast!

    I am so sorry for the loss of your Ali. I lost two of my closest friends - both in their 50's - within the last few years. It is hard.

  4. Anonymous11:38 PM

    You just completely broke my heart. Hugs to you.

  5. Anonymous11:06 AM

    Today, I had a wave of grief come crashing back over me, somewhat unexpectedly, from the loss of my mother about 3 years ago. My heart was already in a similar place as you and I was seeped in these same types of thoughts. I'm sorry for your pain. You have a beautiful way of honoring Ali with your words. --Cathy K

  6. Anonymous3:34 PM

    It is a day teetering on the edge of spring, full of loss and memory and maybe (or not) promise of growing things. So, polenta (with egg--I agree with Birdy). Today I will make it your way and think of you and your dear friend. Many hugs to you.

  7. <3 What a delicious remembrance of your friend.

  8. I was waiting for her to pitch in on green peppercorns in the comments, and then I read to the end. But I'm so glad you had such a friend. And I have to try the recipe.

  9. I'm so sorry - again - still - about Ali.

    But I thought you might want to know about these hilarious recipes being generated by AI...

    "Bake until juice. Brush from the potato sauce: Lightly butter into the viscin. Cook combine water. Source: 0 25 seconds; transfer a madiun in orenge cinnamon with electres if the based, make drained off tala whili; or chicken to well. Sprinkle over skin greased with a boiling bowl. Toast the bread spritkries.
    Yield: 6 servings"

    Your recipes are so much more... hmmm... human?

  10. A beautiful story and a delicious recipe - revolutionary in that you don't have to stand there stirring! I still had a lot of liquid in the pot at 50 minutes, but turned up the heat to 425 (to cook some meatballs) and left the polenta in the oven another 10 minutes, and it came out perfectly! Thanks for sharing your great memories and recipe.

  11. This sounds like the best comfort food ever. Can't wait to try it. And I hope it brings you comfort as you wade in the ebbing and flowing waters of loss. Your memories of Ali are beautiful -- thank you for sharing them.

  12. I'm trying to be more organized and plan weekly menus. I was looking for something different to try and visited your website - inspiration and tears all at once. This sounds delicious and, I love the way that you honor your dear friend... We too, will honor her by making this for our dinner this week! xo

  13. Love this for many reasons, but mainly because I too studied abroad in Florence and ate at Noe almost every day for lunch (it was across the street from my school)!! The best! I always had the vegeteriano - oh, how I miss it. How fun, and I wonder how many other students who studied abroad have this same memory.

  14. I came here while looking for a polenta recipe and found so much more... My best friend Zahida is terminally ill, she is my best person to lie around with, I'm terrified for when she leaves us. I found my way to your NYT piece about mothering her, and then realised I've been following you on IG because of your magnificent cat. Now I'm off to make polenta and season it with my tears and marvel at how small the world really is, especially when it comes to life, death and food. Thank you for this little emotional journey.

    1. Oh, Molly. I'm so sorry. Sending love and light to you. xo