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If you read my post about outdoor entertaining, you know Dinner Table Doctor and I enjoy taking full advantage of our backyard by regularly throwing alfresco dinner parties. One of our absolute favorite themes is a polenta party. Everyone is guaranteed to have a good time and leave with full bellies and fond memories!
What is Polenta?
Polenta is basically cornmeal Italian style and very popular in the mountainous areas of Italy. Polenta is usually made with coarsely ground yellow corn. You can buy it in a box or bag similar to cornmeal or grits, but not the same. Grits are a southern dish usually made from white corn and a little silkier than polenta, which has more texture. Cornmeal is usually finely ground and used as an ingredient in a lot of recipes, where Italian polenta is a recipe in itself. It is usually mixed with melted cheese and often served as a side with short ribs, sausage, or tomato sauce. It tastes great even as a leftover.
What is a Polenta Party?
Oh, you haven’t truly lived if you have not experienced a polenta party, and it’s so easy to throw one yourself! Basically you make Italian polenta with several toppings such as beef or pork or vegetables. When it’s time to serve dinner, you spread the polenta on a large, long board and alternate the toppings over the polenta. Then you make a big production carrying the board (it takes two people) to the table and placing it in the middle so all the guests can scoop some up to fill their plates and enjoy the delicious meal. You pass around the wine and a glorious time is had by all.
How to Throw Your Own Polenta Party
Everything you need to know to throw a polenta party, including recipes, a timeline, and lovely photos are in a blog post by Faith Durand which you can find at thekitchn.com. DTD and I use most of the recipes she includes in her post, but we also add our own specialties in the mix. Sometimes we will make sausage and peppers for a topping and we have a favorite recipe for the greens which is a little different from the braised kale she creates. Typically we also switch up the salad depending on what we have available, and DTD always makes a great dessert instead of the ice-cream she recommends because I’m lactose intolerant and when I’m throwing the party, the menu revolves around me. So you can certainly customize the menu to your liking, because as long as you have plenty of polenta, toppings of your choice, and wine, it’s a polenta party!
Our Most Recent Polenta Party
We had some fully-vaccinated friends over several weeks ago, and most of them had never experienced a polenta party, which made the spectacle extra fun.
We started the evening off with a charcuterie board along with some bean dip that DTD made, I suspect because he wanted to make sure everyone got their fiber. (Two of the guests happened to be his patients.) We shared a few bottles of Lambrusco which is a great choice for a platter of fatty meats and cheeses, as I explain in detail in Charcuterie in the Time of COVID. Our favorite was the Cantina Settecani Vini Del Re Lambrusco Di Modena Rosato. DTD selected this because it is from the Emilia-Romagna region of Italy, where polenta is a popular dish. It is an inexpensive sparkling wine and was the perfect pairing.
Our main menu for this particular polenta party included Faith’s recipes for creamy polenta, shredded beef in red wine, and creamy mushrooms, as well as our favorite recipe for greens. We made the beef and mushrooms the day before. I made the polenta that morning and kept it warm in a crockpot, and warmed the beef up in another crockpot. I made the greens a few hours before the party and kept them warm in the oven along with the mushrooms from the day before. We had some lovely tomatoes from the local farmer’s market, so we made a panzanella salad which is Tuscan style and uses toasted bread. It is wonderful to make when you have fresh tomatoes, and is something you can create ahead of time because it gets better as the bread soaks up the dressing.
The presentation was just as dramatic as we hoped, although we did have some technical difficulties. The juice from the beef overflowed off the board, creating a bit of a mess. In retrospect, we should have put more polenta on the board and made a big trench in it to hold the toppings. Luckily we were outside, so the racoons that night probably had a blast licking the roast beef juices off of our bricks after we went to bed! But the board made it to the table and everyone was able to scoop as much as they wanted onto their plate while we passed around the salad and wine.
The wine we shared during the main course included a 2013 Casa E di Mirafiore Barolo from Piedmont Italy, so an appropriate choice for polenta. This wine received some really impressive reviews and scored a 91 on Wine Advocate, which gave this description – “The 2013 Barolo impresses for its purity of fruit and its seamless integration. There are no rough edges here and the wine glides clean over the palate, leaving a long and silky impression. Wild berry fruits and light touches of toasted spice add to the intensity. Smoke and crushed flint make for pretty contouring.” I just love reading wine reviews – so descriptive and typically highfalutin, in the best way!
The other wine we shared was a 2015 Monte Zovo Amarone Della Valpolicella, a classic Amarone that went particularly well with the beef. I thoroughly enjoyed this one because it had a hint of spiciness and pepper. Whenever DTD asks me what wine I’m in the mood for I ALWAYS answer, “something spicy with a kick” and this wine delivered nicely.
As impressive as it is when you carry out the board of polenta, you don’t have to serve everything in this manner. You can certainly make a buffet out of all the ingredients, or offer them family style in regular serving bowls. If you would like a board, you can buy one online. You could even make one out of a nice piece of wood, but you must use a food-grade sealer so it’s safe to eat from.
During dinner, as we all helped ourselves to the wine and polenta feast, the subject of arthritis came up. We all shared stories of aches and pains that come with middle age. The discussion was not in a complaining manner – just light, amusing banter about the challenges of aging gracefully when it’s sometimes hard to get out of bed or open a jar of pickles. DTD offered a little insight, which didn’t bother me in the least since I had a full glass, a full belly, and amiable company.
Apparently there are several types of arthritis, which is a general term for inflammation of the joints. Our discussion was limited to osteoarthritis, which is the most common, often comes with age, and typically affects the hands, knees, and hips. The cartilage in these areas, which allows bones to slide over each other without pain, breaks down. With time, the bones in a joint rub together, causing pain, stiffness, and swelling.
You can ease the symptoms of osteoarthritis by resting when your pain is at its worst, but not for long, because physical activity reduces your pain in the long run. Strong muscles will take some of the strain off your joints. If you’re overweight, that also strains your joints, so losing weight with activity and a healthy diet will help you feel better. Hot or cold packs for short periods also may alleviate some of your pain, and your doctor may recommend assistive devices such as shoe inserts or splints. The bottom line is, you should definitely see your doctor if you’re experiencing joint pain. There are steps you can take for relief and you don’t want to keep popping over-the-counter painkillers without knowing exactly what is wrong.
Back to the Party
DTD shared quite a bit more information about arthritis and answered many questions from our guests, but eventually it was time for dessert, so I cut him off abruptly. For our final course, DTD continued his baking streak and made a beautiful, delicious peach cake, taking advantage of all the yummy peaches we’d been enjoying this summer. He found the recipe on one of our favorite websites, shelovesbiscotti.com. While we always have a pot of coffee available for guests to enjoy with their dessert, most opted for a taste of a 2019 Ca Montebello di Scarani Luigi Sangue di Giuda, a lovely dessert wine. The name means “Blood of Judas” and it is also known as Blood Wine. It is a sweet, red/purple wine and goes wonderfully well with sweets, so a great choice if you’re having a Halloween party!
While anytime of the year works, fall is a terrific time for a polenta party. Now you know exactly how to throw one yourself, plus you’ve been inspired to add your own personal touch to the menu. If you’re my age, I hope osteoarthritis doesn’t hinder your efforts in any way.
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