It’s that time of year again—the dead of winter, a time when one longs for warming, comforting dishes. In other words, it’s polenta time! And even if this winter has been surprisingly mild around here, I couldn’t let the season go by without at least one polenta recipe. Especially one as tasty as this one.
Polenta is an ideal accompaniment for rich stews like the gulasch triestino we recently featured or the sausage and pork ribs braised in tomato sauce so dear to Romans. But for polenta lovers like myself, it’s perfectly delicious in its own right, and there’s no better proof than today’s dish. A speciality of Val d’Aosta, a tiny region tucked away in the northwestern corner of Italy, polenta concia, also known as polenta grassa or “fat” polenta, is a positively ambrosial dish of polenta enriched with lots and lots of cheese and butter.
I first came across today’s dish years ago, in Hedy Giusti-Lanham and Andrea Dodi’s 1978 The Cuisine of Venice and Surrounding Northern Regions. I was thunder-struck by the recipe just reading it—you see, I’m a cheese maven as well as a polenta maven—and it’s been a personal favorite every since. Sadly, I’ve never had a chance to visit Val d’Aosta to try it on its home turf, but that hasn’t stopped me making it—or one of its many variations—part of my regular rotation.
For a dish that comes down to three or four simple ingredients—cornmeal, cheese, butter and sometimes milk—polenta concia has an amazing number of variations. It’s really more of a family of recipes than a single dish. Yet another example of the boundless creativity that Italians apply to even the humblest kind of cookery.
So for this post, you’ll find my favorite recipe for polenta concia in the main text, and then a survey of its numerous extended family in the Notes. It’s a family that’s well worth getting to know. You could spend some very pleasant (if rather fattening) hours working your way through all the various versions of this dish.
To cook the polenta:
- 250g (8 oz) yellow corn meal for polenta (see Notes)
- 1 liter (1 quart) water (or more)
- salt, to taste
For enriching the polenta:
- 250ml (1 cup) whole milk
- 250g (8 oz) fontina or other meltable cheese (see Notes), trimmed of its rind and cut into small cubes or slices
For finishing the dish:
- 100g (1 stick) butter, or to taste
Prepare the polenta with the corn meal and salted water following the directions in this post.
When the polenta is nearly done, pour in the milk and let it be absorbed completely. At the end of cooking, your polenta should be thick but quite soft and pourable. Add more water or milk if necessary to get the right consistency.
Just before serving, lower the heat to very low. Add the cheese and stir until it has melted into the polenta.
Ladle the polenta into bowls and keep warm.
Melt the butter in a small saucepan until it foams and pour the melted butter generously over the polenta.
There’s a fair bit of mystique surrounding polenta and its preparation. But at the end of the day, you’re making cornmeal mush, so there’s no need to feel intimidated. That said, there are a few points to bear in mind. In particular, you need to take care when adding the corn meal to the simmering water so you don’t get those unpleasant clumps. I’d recommend you take a look at our post on making homemade polenta for some useful tips and tricks.
That post also points out the various different ways to make polenta. There’s the traditional slow-stirred method, pressure cooker polenta, slow cooker polenta and, yes, even instant polenta. Any of these methods will work just fine for this dish.
You will see polenta concia made with fairly stiff polenta, but I think this dish is at its best when the polenta is left soft and porridge-like. The incredibly rich flavor and silky texture when the cheese melts into it and the butter is poured over it is pure comfort.
Types of cornmeal
In Italy farina di mais or cornmeal comes in various types, both yellow and white. There are two types of yellow cornmeal you want for making polenta concia, called bramata and fioretto. Bramata is more coarsely ground and favored for accompanying hearty stews in particular. Fioretto is more finely ground and produces a lovely soft, silky textured polenta. The few recipes that specify tend to recommend bramata for making polenta concia, but in my opinion both work well. You can find both online and in finery groceries.
If you’re in the US, be aware that the usual cornmeal sold here—even when marketed for making polenta—is more coarsely ground than even bramata. It produces a rather gritty texture that isn’t typical. If you can, try to find “medium ground” cornmeal which is similar to bramata. But, in a pinch, obviously you can just go with what you can find.
And yes, although my foodie cred will suffer for it, I’m fine with using polenta lampo, or instant polenta. Sure, it won’t be as tasty as slow-cooked polenta, but with all that cheese and butter it will still be worth eating.
Types of cheeses
The most common cheese found in recipes for polenta concia is fontina, preferably of course the highly prized local fontina Val d’Aosta. Less often you’ll see some recipes calling for toma, the local version of French tomme and, in a few recipes I’ve seen, the rather rare maccagno cheese. In some recipes, you use of mix of cheeses such as half fontina and half toma.
Luckily fontina Val d’Aosta is widely available at finer cheese shops, upscale supermarkets and online, so you should have no trouble sourcing it. Toma is more elusive, but you can substitute the very similar French tomme, which is fairly easy to find. And, for US readers, Point Reyes puts out a domestic toma. (Disclaimer: I’ve never tried it, so proceed at your own risk.)
None of these cheeses are cheap, of course. If your pocket isn’t deep enough for them, you could substitute more or less any meltable Alpine cheese. Taleggio or Emmenthal, for example, would be excellent choices. Truth be told, I’ve even made polenta with supermarket Munster, the kind they use for sandwiches. While I might not dare to call it “polenta concia“, it hit the spot.
The amount of cheese varies by recipe, but generally speaking you should use the same amount of cheese as cornmeal by weight.
In a few recipes, you add grated parmigiano-reggiano along with the fontina or even as the sole cheese. And you’ll also find a few calling for gorgonzola as well. I’ve noticed these tend to come from Milanese sources.
As I’ve commented on before, cultured butter, sometime marketed in North America as “European style” butter, will provide a finer flavor than the “sweet” variety. And that’s particularly important when making polenta concia, where the butter plays such a central role.
Some Italian recipes even go as far to recommend burro valdostano for a truly authentic local flavor. Here in the US at least, that’s a bit of a pipe dream. You can find online, however, a well-regarded Alpine butter from Bavaria. Whether it compares with burro valdostano, I couldn’t really say.
I’ve suggested a measurement for the butter, but it’s really just notional. As Giusti-Lanham and Dodi point out, a Valdostana cook wouldn’t measure, “she would just inundate the polenta.” Good advice if you ask me, as you can see from the photos …
As mentioned, for a simple dish made from three basic ingredients—cornmeal, cheese and butter—there’s an amazing variety of similar but distinct recipes that go by the name of polenta concia or polenta grassa. Here are some of these variations:
- Cook the polenta with water only or with milk only, or in a 50/50 mix. (Giusti-Lanham and Dodi’s recipe call for all milk, but suggest skim milk to make it less rich.)
- Add cream instead or in addition to the milk
- Add the butter to the polenta along with the cheese as it cooks, rather than pouring it on top. According to this source, this variation is called “cateuffiè gràssè“.
- Add the butter and/or cheese to the polenta about halfway through cooking rather than at the end
- Sauté the butter until nut-brown before pouring it on top of the cooked polenta
- Sauté the butter with flavorings, usually garlic and sage.
- Add lots of butter—and no cheese— to the polenta as it cooks. (At least one source calls this the original/basic recipe for polenta grassa.)
- Top the polenta with freshly ground pepper and/or grated parmigiano-reggiano
Layered and baked versions, sometimes called ‘polenta grassa’
There are also a number of dishes where the polenta is layered with cheese and sometimes baked in the oven:
- Add the butter and only part of the cheese to the polenta as it cooks. Then layer the hot polenta in a bowl alternating with thin slices of the rest of the cheese. The heat of the polenta should be enough to partially melt the cheese.
- You layer polenta and cheese per the last listed variation above, topping the polenta with cheese. Finish it in a moderately hot oven (180C/350F) for 5-10 minutes and serve bubbly hot.
- You let the polenta cool completely, then cut it into slices and layer the slices with cheese—and sometimes béchamel—in a baking dish as if making lasagna. Top with more cheese and butter and bake in a moderately hot oven (180C/350F) until bubbly hot and the golden brown on top.
- Ada Boni proposes an interesting version of the above dish, which she calls polenta e fontina in torta. You bake the layered polenta and cheese in a deep baking dish then, after a short rest, you unmold it onto a platter and serve it as you would a cake.
In those sources that include separate recipes for polenta concia and polenta grassa, including the Accademia Italiana della Cucina, the term “polenta grassa” refers to dishes where the cooked polenta is layered with the cheese, in some cases baked and in some not. Another source calls the briefly baked version of polenta grassa “polenta assetà“. But this usage isn’t consistent. A number of recipes with these variations called themselves “polenta concia“.
And although polenta concia is plenty rich and satisfying on its own, some recipes suggest serving it with sausages or cured pork such as Speck.
There are any number of similar but distinct recipes for polenta popular across northern Italy. Here are a few examples. The first, from famed Milanese chef Gualtiero Marchesi, he styles as polenta concia but is actually so different from most other recipes for the dish that I’d consider it a different dish by the same name.
Polenta conscia brianzola. You layer cooked polenta with cream and grated parmigiano-reggiano, then pour over just rendered lard. Marchesi does take note of the fact that other versions of polenta concia call for butter and fontina or toma, but curiously he flags this version as the master recipe.
Polenta con il lardo. Similarly, the Nuova cucina d’oro has a recipe for polenta con il lardo, where you sauté lardo in butter with sage and layer it with cooked polenta and meltable cheese.
Polenta con i ciccioli. Similar to the above recipe only rather than lardo, you sauté ciccioli, the pork cracklings that are a byproduct of producing lard—basically the Italian version of chicharrón—and add them to polenta, which you then layer with cheese and bake in the oven. A dish that makes polenta concia seem dietetic by comparison!
This kind of polenta from the Valtellina area of Lombardy deserves its own post. But for now, just know that polenta taragna is made from buckwheat flour or (rather better in my book) a mixture of equal parts corn meal and buckwheat flour, which you cook as you would regular polenta, then enrich with butter and cheese just before serving. In this case, you’d typically use one of the semi-fat, medium-ripened cow-milk cheeses produced in the area: valtellina, vasera, bitto or branzi, although you could also use fontina. I can sometime find polenta taragna in the fancier supermarkets in my area; you can also find it online.
For cooking the polenta
- 250g 8 oz yellow corn meal for polenta (see Notes)
- 1 liter 1 quart water or more if needed
- salt to taste
For enriching the polenta
- 250ml 1 cup whole milk
- 250g 8 oz fontina or other meltable cheese trimmed of its rind and cut into small cubes or slices
For finishing the dish
- 100g 1 stick butter
- When the polenta is nearly done, pour in the milk and let it be absorbed completely. At the end of cooking, your polenta should be thick but soft and still quite pourable. Add more water or milk if necessary to get the right consistency.
- Just before serving, lower the heat to very low. Add the cheese and stir until it has melted into the polenta.
- Ladle the polenta into bowls and keep warm.
- Melt the butter in a small saucepan until it foams and pour the melted butter generously over the polenta.
- Serve immediately.