Blue Velvet

"Wow! If the mush that Mom made for winter breakfasts tasted like this, I would have eaten and enjoyed it!" Mark said as he scraped the last remaining vestiges of his lunch off the plate. Mush. Cornmeal mush. Grits. Indian pudding. Gruel.

Not today, though. Today we encounter the city cousin, the relative of cornmeal mush that is exotic and elegant: polenta. However, if you are Italian or have spent any time in Italy or know anything about Italian food, then you know the truth: this city cousin is just a country cousin that "done good."

Polenta is peasant food in Italy just as grits are here. (One must wonder if grits are revered anywhere other than the United States...)  I love polenta in all its forms - cooked and spread on a cookie sheet till it is cold and hard, then cut into squares and grilled or griddled... soft and creamy as the base for an herb-infused rag├╣... or in cakes, tarts and other desserts. In addition to its multiple uses, it also comes in two colors (yellow and white), and in varying degrees of fineness.

I have always been told that polenta originated in the Friuli-Venezia Giulia region of Italy, and that the corn kernels used there were white and ground very finely. Other regions use yellow corn, and the fineness of the grind also depends on either the region or the preparation. I recently discovered a brand of white cornmeal (thanks to a gift from our friends Susan and Towny!) that has taken my love of polenta to new levels. This brand - Moretti 'farina di granoturco: Bramata Bianca' - has an exquisite texture, finer than any yellow or while polenta I have ever had. After using up the bag our friends sent, I found it on Amazon.com and bought a case. What? Me? Obsessive?? There is no doubt that none will be wasted and that it will be gone all too soon.

Today - yet another overcast, cool winter day in the desert - called for more comfort food. I eyed the opened bag of the Moretti polenta next to the cocoa powder as I started to make my bowl of morning cocoa.  I quickly realized that I had everything on hand to make polenta al gorgonzola, a dish I first had at Union Square Cafe just after it opened in 1985.  25 years ago, I sat at the bar with a friend (who did we think we were coming into the already celebrated New York restaurant with no reservations?) and sipped a glass of crisp white while we waited for our polenta - my first ever. My friend said I would love it, and I did. It was so creamy and the oozing veins of blue cheese were amazing - I called it blue velvet.

So, today, I toasted a few pine nuts, fried some sage leaves from the garden and started the polenta. What a delightful treat it was this afternoon for us. We served it with a slightly sweet white wine that held up beautifully to the creamy intensity of the gorgonzola dolce.

Other than the polenta, the blue cheese is the ingredient that makes or breaks this dish. The cheese must be creamy and sweet - a regular blue would be too harsh. If gorgonzola dolce is not available, good substitutes would be Saga blue or Cambozola, although neither has the depth of the gorgonzola. This recipe is intended for four first course servings, but can easily serve six depending on what - and how much - comes next...

Buon appetito!
- David

Polenta al Gorgonzola

2 tablespoons pignoli (pine nuts)
8-12 sage leaves
2 tablespoons butter
2 cups chicken broth
2 cups water
1/2 teaspoons salt
1 cup finely ground white (or yellow) cornmeal
1/2 cup grated Parmigiano-reggiano
1/4 cup cream
4 ounces gorgonzola dolce, cut into four slices

Toast the pignoli in a dry skillet until nutty and brown. Remove from the skillet immediately to stop the cooking. Add the butter to the skillet and, when melted and hot, add the sage leaves and cook until crisp buy not brown. Remove the leaves and drain on paper towels; reserve the browned butter for serving, if desired.

Heat the broth and water until almost boiling. Add the salt and bring to a boil; reduce heat. Add cornmeal in a slow stead stream, whisking as you add it. Continue whisking the cornmeal for 15-20 minutes until thick. Add the Parmigiano-reggiano and cream, and mix thoroughly. ladle polenta onto a serving platter and decorate with slices of gorgonzola alternated with sage leaves and topped with toasted pine nuts. Serve any remaining pine nuts and sage leaves on the side.

Serves 4-6.


  1. It is so rare--and so gratifying--when I can find a foodie item that you may not know about! (I was thrilled when we gave you and Mark a bottle of huile d'Argan--direct from Morocco--several years before it surfaced here!)So glad you like the white cornmeal!

    I have just enough left to try this recipe! I may have to buy a case...if I don't get back to Chelsea Market first!


  2. And you will be surprised at how quickly you can use up a case. I want to try making a polenta cake with it! Keep those great foodie items coming! David


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