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Chef's Corner: Soft Polenta with Pancetta, Garlic and Hot Pepper

Warm, filling and easy to make. The perfect fall and winter meal. It is adapted from Italy al Dente by Biba Caggiano where she says once you start eating it you can't stop. So true.

What really makes this dish are the chile peppers. If you can get fresh red peppers such as Fresnos they would be perfect. If not, use the always ubiquitous red pepper flakes. There's no 'amount' listed in the recipe. We like lots, but you can go easy if 'hot' isn't your thing. We used seven Fresnos. If using red pepper flakes, start with 1 tsp and go up (a lot if you like) from there.

Making polenta used to be a time intensive process. You had to stand at the stove and stir. Cooks Illustrated came up with a better way, using just a pinch of baking soda to help soften the cornmeal. Ms. Caggiano's original recipe does not call for butter. Use it to increase the richness of the dish if you prefer.

We used 4 cups water which produced a moderately soft/thick dish. Use 5 cups (or more) water for a softer version.


Soft Polenta with Pancetta, Garlic & Hot Pepper

Serves 2 hungry people

  • 1 1/4 cups cornmeal polenta (or polenta style corn grits)

  • 4 cups water

  • 3/4 tsp salt

  • Small pinch baking soda

  • 1-2 TB butter (optional)

  • 1/3 cup extra virgin olive oil

  • 1/4 pound thick sliced pancetta, cut into small strips

  • 3 cloves garlic, smashed or minced

  • Chopped fresh red chili pepper or hot red pepper flakes to taste

  • Salt to taste

  • 2 TB chopped fresh Italian parsley

  • 1/2 cup (or more to taste) freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Bring the water to a boil in a heavy bottomed pot. Add the salt and baking soda. Then, over medium-high heat, slowly pour the cornmeal into the water, stirring as you go. Continue to stir as you bring it back to a boil, about 1 minute. Reduce the heat to the lowest you can go (we use a 'flame tamer' on our burner to cut the heat) and cover.

TIP: For additional flavor, instead of the original 3/4 tsp salt in the polenta recipe, use granulated or liquid chicken boullion to taste.

After five minutes, stir the polenta (a whisk is useful here, but not essential) to smooth out any lumps (also scrape the sides of the pot).

Cover and continue to cook without stirring until the cornmeal is tender but slightly al dente. About 25 minutes (it will get thicker as it cools).

About five minutes before the polenta is done, heat a medium frying pan and add the oil. When the oil is hot add the pancetta and cook until it is lightly browned. around two minutes. Add the garlic and chili pepper. Stir briefly. Don't let the garlic brown. Turn off the heat, season with salt to taste and stir in the parsley.

Stir butter into the cooked polenta, if using. Add salt if needed, then divide into serving bowls (we like our bowls hot to keep the food hotter, longer).

Top the plated polenta with the meat/pepper sauce and cheese. Serve immediately. Feel free to use more cheese! We like to stir the sauce and cheese together in the bowl:

WINE SUGGESTION: An old-world style merlot. We are fond of the merlot from a small producer in Paso Robles, Fratelli Perata.

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