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.
Hi Frank! Please tell me how I can print your recipes? Every time I make something you post, the compliments are incredible and everyone wants a copy of the recipe. Thanks!
Thanks so much, Louise, for the kinds words!
Most posts (and all recent ones) have a recipe card at the bottom of the post. In the upper right hand corner, there’s a small picture and below that a “Print Recipe” button. Just click on that and you should be good to go!
I adore polenta, especially when loaded with cheese or butter! Indeed, I can enjoy it any tike of the year. In summer I often go with sautéed tomatoes and herbs while in winter can go with something more rich and unhealthy 🙂 I must admit, though – most of the times I use “quick” polenta that requires just about 10 minutes of cooking time. I know that the real stuff offers so much more of flavour; I need to use it more often!
It certainly does but as I said in the post for this recipe in particular, with all that butter and cheese, even instant polenta comes out very tasty.
Never made polenta this way but will do this Saturday! Great one!
Wow, this sounds like my kind of recipe, Frank! Polenta with a bunch of cheese and butter? Yes, please. This is the perfect cold-weather food. I’ve had some pretty tasty wines from the Val d’Aosta region, so of course this is a good excuse to open one of those bottles and make this recipe. Cheers!
Definitely! Enjoy… 🙂
Making polenta has always intimidated me, don’t ask me why. You tutorial on making polenta will certainly help me overcoming my hesitation.
Yes, polenta can be intimidating to so many people. But as I mentioned, it really shouldn’t be good luck if you do try it!
I would love nothing more than to try this, especially now (did you see our local LA mountains are covered in SNOW?) but goodness, I am trying to cut down on cream and butter which is so sad! This sounds incredibly delicious to me! I love polenta!
Yes, I read about that snow. Incredible! I’m trying to cut down to, but they’re always going to be exceptions… 😆
Wow – I want/need this soon. It has been ridiculously cold here in Tucson (even some snow yesterday morning, though we were sitting in the garden reading bt midday…). The only Fontina I see regularly isn’t the best – Trader Joe’s. But I will check at Roma Imports to see if they have it. While not heart healthy (seriously, what good food is?) this is a dish I can see us having more often than we should!
Snow in Tucson? Wow, incredible! Yep, this definitely isn’t heart-healthy, but hey, I figure if I have it a couple of times each winter, it won’t kill me. And even if it does, I’ll enjoy the ride… 😉
This was fantastic, Frank — ended up finding soe decent Fontina at the Italian market. It is really hard to describe this dish — it is so much more than the sum of its parts!
I’ve beeen known to blitz corn meal in the blender to make it a finer grind for polenta or farinata. Do it about 2/3 cup at a time as it will oveheat the blender otherwise.
What an interesting idea! Thanks for sharing.
this looks amazing Frank. All that lovely butter! It’s funny but even when recipes call for unsalted butter, i always go with salted. It needs the salt 🙂
Thanks, Sherry! Hope you give it a try, with lots of butter salted or not…
I couldn’t agree more – winter is the perfect time for comforting dishes, and polenta is definitely one of them! This recipe for polenta concia sounds absolutely delicious, and I can’t wait to give it a try.
I love the idea of enriching the polenta with lots of cheese and butter – it sounds so indulgent and satisfying. And it’s fascinating to learn that there are so many variations of this dish, each with their own unique twist.
I do hope you give polenta concia a try, it’s quite heavenly!
Wow, what a gorgeous recipe! So rich and extravagant, I love the “lasagna” variation! I’m glad I only found out about it now as opposed to thirty years ago, I’d be as wide as a house!
Ha! Well, it’s definitely not a dish that you’d want to eat on a daily basis. But every once in while… no harm done. 😉
I love polenta when it has cheese melted into it. I’m not sure if we get fontina here. I shall have to look when I go shopping tomorrow.
Hope you find it! But as mentioned there are plenty of other cheeses you could use. Good luck!
Well my part of Australia really does not have a winter – I don’t think -!C at 5am on three mornings a year really counts ! But summer or winter polenta is a favourite and we can buy the ‘real stuff’ manufactured here or imported just everywhere. Hmm – I truly can see the difference twixt this and my far more meagre offerings, but, but . . . 😉 ! Shall try the milk and some fontina the next time around . . . it does look awfully temptin!
Well, in a climate like that I guess you don’t have the same kind of hankering for warming comfort dishes… but still it definitely is tempting all the same!
I have been craving baked cheese grits (I’m from Oklahoma) but I think I will make this instead! It looks delicious! Thank you as always.
There’s definitely a family resemblance with cheese grits! And if you like those I bet you’ll love this!
I wanted to go to Val D’aosta just for the fontina! Never made it across the Alps on that trip. I absolutely adore short ribs served with polenta, even though heavy meat dishes are typically my comfort food. But it such a lovely combination. But this! Polenta and butter and cream and Fontina?!!! Oh my god. I need to add this to my last meal dishes!
If I had to choose—although I hope I never do— this might well be on the menu!
I’ve already done my meal planning and shopping for the week but now I’m craving polenta!
damn, Frank – you always go for such diet, calvinistic and punishing recipes!
on fontina: even in Italy, it is not that easy to find good fontina, in my experience. I mean, you can find it in any good supermarket or cheese shop, but the taste is not comparable to the fontina one can buy in Valle d’Aosta, where I spent many years skying. Toma is fab too (well, toma is a general term to be precise) – kind of earthy cheese..
Hehe! What can I say? I’m incorrigible… 😉 Interesting what you say about fontina. I rather liked the specimen I bought for this post, which was labeled as being from Val d’Aosta although not having been I can’t compare it with the stuff you can actually buy there.
That looks amazing, like a polenta fondue! Back on the subject of butter, I have had some amazing home made stuff, which almost tasted like a delicate cheese. Also …and this may be frowned upon, if polenta goes lumpy a stick blender will fix it.
Thanks, MD! I rather like the idea of calling it polenta fondue… it captures the dish nicely! And great idea to blend the polenta. I’ve never tried it—not to brag but I rarely get lumps after so many years of practice— but if it works, why not?
It looks soul comforting and so moreish!
Looks amazing. And most of the time the simple rustic dishes like this are the best. And with the cheese melted into the polenta, you’ve got me drooling here!
Thanks, Neil! Polenta concia is rather drool-worthy, if I say so myself. 😉 And I couldn’t agree more, rustic dishes are the best!