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Polenta is a dish made from boiled cornmeal. The word "polenta" is borrowed from Italian. Polenta is made with ground yellow or white cornmeal. It can be ground coarsely or finely depending on the region and the texture desired. As it is known today, polenta derives from earlier forms of grain mush (known as puls or pulmentum in Latin or more commonly as gruel or porridge) commonly eaten in Roman times and after. Early forms of polenta were made with such starches as the grain farro and chestnut flour, both of which are still used in small quantity today. When boiled, polenta has a smooth, creamy texture due to the gelatinization of starch in the grain, though it may not be completely homogeneous if a coarse grind or a particularly hard grain such as flint corn is used. It can still be found in modern day supermarkets in tubes or boxes.


Polenta is often cooked in a huge copper pot known in Italian as paiolo. Polenta is known to be a native dish of and to have originated from Friuli-Venezia Giulia. There are many different ways to cook polenta. Some Lombard polenta dishes are polenta taragna (which includes buckwheat flour), polenta uncia, polenta concia, polenta e gorgonzola, and missultin e polenta; all are cooked with various cheeses and butter, except the last one, which is cooked with fish from Lake Como. It can also be cooked with porcini mushrooms, rapini, or other vegetables or meats, such as small song-birds in the case of the Venetian and Lombard dish polenta e osei. In some areas of Piedmont it can be also made of potatoes instead of cornmeal (polenta bianca).

Polenta is traditionally a slowly cooked dish. It sometimes takes an hour or longer, and constant stirring is necessary. The time and labor intensity of traditional preparation methods has led to a profusion of shortcuts. These include alternative cooking techniques that are meant to speed up the process. There are also new products such as instant polenta, popular in Italy, that allow for fast, easy preparation at home.

Cooked polenta can also be shaped into balls, patties, or sticks and fried in oil until it is golden brown and crispy; this variety of polenta is called crostini di polenta or polenta fritta. This type of polenta became particularly popular in Southern Brazil as a consequence of Northern Italian immigration. Similarly, once formed into a shape it can also be grilled using, for example, a brustolina grill.

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