Planet Organic Founder and mother of three, Renée Elliott, tells us how Italians get through the depths of winter with satisfying, warming polenta.
Italian cooking changes completely in the winter. It becomes heavier and richer, which is the perfect companion for cold and snow. There are many soups, stews and pasta dishes that focus on the vegetables available at this time and are more sustaining.
I had this amazing polenta dripping with garlic and cheese in the mountains a few years ago. I was back in the summer a while later and was so disappointed that I couldn’t haven’t again. They don’t even make it because it’s not for summer eating.
I love their traditions and the culinary knowledge that is passed from generation to generation. They don’t always know why they do something, but they won’t deviate from it. My best friend from school is married to an Italian and his mother drives her nuts sometimes with her rules around food and her particular ways of doing things. But she has learned so much about food and cooking.
In the winter in northern Italy, many dinner tables have polenta, an old Italian dish made with cornmeal and water. Proper cornmeal is cooked for an hour in a heavy pot – copper if you have one. I’m told that the secret to great polenta, although I haven’t really had bad polenta, is to always stir in the same direction, so I’m nervous now about changing direction mid-way. You are supposed to stand over the pot stirring continuously for an hour until the polenta is thick and comes away from the sides of the saucepan.
On a freezing winter’s day, it can be lovely to stand over a hot saucepan in the winter, chatting to family in the kitchen. Or it can be a sort of meditation with the stirring and stirring and stirring. Or, of course, you can use instant.
At Planet Organic, we have two organic polenta, Infinity Polenta and ‘instant’ Amisa Polenta Pronta. I like the non-organic, but I only cook it for about 20 minutes. You can cook it for an hour, but add another 120ml/4fl oz/½ cup of water. With longer cooking, the polenta becomes softer. I recommend the Seggiano Pesto – which is absolutely to die for even if you make your own. We have a wide selection of olives where you can choose green or black. And our organic mozzarella is fantastic quality.
This dish is delicious, satisfying – and fun for kids. It’s a great mix of flavours with the pesto, tomato and olives, and the melting cheese is irresistible.
SERVES: 2 adults and 2 children
PREPARATION TIME: 15 minutes
COOKING TIME: 25 minutes
STORAGE: Refrigerate for up to 3 days.
butter, for greasing
1 tsp sea salt
90g/3¼oz/½ cup polenta
8 tsp Seggiano Raw Basil Pesto
1-2 medium tomatoes, cut into 8 slices
80g olives, sliced into rings
500g mozzarella, cut into slices 1cm thick
1 Grease the bottom of a 15x30cm/6x12in square baking tin with butter. In a heavy-based saucepan, bring 455ml/16fl oz/scant 2 cups water the boil over a high heat. Add the salt and then the polenta in a stream, whisking vigorously to avoid lumps before it begins to thicken. Reduce the heat to medium-low and cook for20 minutes, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon, until thick and stiff.
2 Remove from the heat and scoop the polenta into the tin. Smooth out the surface with a rubber spatula. Spread from the centre outwards, pushing the polenta into the corners. Let set for 10 minutes, then cut into eight 7.5cm/3in squares (or six circles with a pastry cutter, which are prettier, but leave some polenta).
3 Heat the grill to medium. Using a metal spatula, lift the polenta pieces onto a baking tray. Spread 1 teaspoon of pesto on each piece of polenta, then put a slice of tomato, some chopped olives and a slice of mozzarella on top (if they are small, use two). Grill for 5 minutes until the mozzarella is dripping down the sides and the polenta is warmed through. Serve hot.
A huge range of products are available on-line from Planet Organic. If you live in London, you can receive fresh products. If you are outside of London, for the polenta, pesto and olives, go to planetorganic.com.
For more recipes you and your family will enjoy, check out “The Best Recipes for Babies & Toddlers” in the book section of the website. Not just for babies, the book has recipes from 12 months that are great for the whole family.
Eat well; live better.
Founder, Planet Organic
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