Polenta’s journey: fancy to familiar

When polenta first hit the food scene in the United States, it was the kind of delicacy that graced the likes of only Italian specialty food shops and high-end restaurants.

No matter that it came from peasant Italian stock, or that it bore an extremely close resemblance to its humble cousin, cornmeal mush (yes, the same stuff that sustained Mary and Laura Ingalls on their trip West). Polenta was fancy, expensive and fussy to prepare, with most recipes calling for constant stirring for its 45-minute cooking time: dinner-party food at its sophisticated best.

Flash-forward a couple of decades, and let’s just say polenta has been around. You’re likely to run into it everywhere, in many manifestations, even hanging out in the refrigerated cases of your local supermarket, fully cooked and squeezed into a plastic tube.

And here’s the thing: With the exception of the stuff in the plastic tube (which is vile and should be avoided), all polenta is good polenta.

Yes, the long-simmered, coarsely ground stuff is better, especially if you can source freshly milled, coarsely ground polenta from heirloom corn. But even the powdery instant variety is acceptable for a quick after-work meal when you’re starving for a little comfort but don’t have much time.

Usually, though, I split the difference and opt for finely ground polenta that’s quicker to cook than the coarse stuff, but has a more interesting, nubby texture and fuller flavor than the instant kind. It cooks in about 25 minutes, and you don’t have to stir it very much. While it cooks, you’ll have the chance to throw together some kind of topping.

In this recipe, I keep the topping fairly simple: a straightforward saute of browned onions and sausage spiked with fennel seeds and rosemary.

But I do add something special to the polenta pot. In addition to a bay leaf and a good amount of butter, I stir in some grated raw butternut squash. The squash cooks in the same amount of time as the cornmeal, adding a mild sweetness to the mix.

The squash also lends the polenta a refined air, perhaps even elevating it back to its halcyon days on the dinner-party circuit. Or maybe it’s just a cozy weeknight meal with a twist. You decide. The polenta’s seen it all.

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