Did You Know?
According to The National Foundation for Celiac Awareness (NFCA), about 18 million Americans have gluten sensitivity. That's 6 times the amount of Americans who have celiac disease.
Even small amounts of gluten in food can affect those diagnosed with celiac disease or gluten sensitivity. Gluten is a protein that is found in wheat, barley, rye, and possibly oats (due to cross contamination). Consumption of gluten sometimes leads to damaged lining of the small intestine. As a result, the person cannot absorb essential nutrients from ingested food. The condition is called 'celiac disease'. Those with non-celiac gluten sensitivity also cannot tolerate gluten, and exhibit symptoms similar to those exhibited by people diagnosed with celiac disease. But they do not have the same type of intestinal damage found in individuals with celiac disease. However, people diagnosed with non-celiac glucose sensitivity also need to avoid gluten.
As a result of globalization and expansion of international culture, foods from the far corners of the earth are easily available for people who love trying different dishes. This is the reason why Italian, French, Indian, Japanese, Thai, and Chinese dishes have gained popularity all over the world. Polenta is one such Italian traditional dish, which is made from cornmeal. As it is made from cornmeal, it does not contain gluten.
What is Polenta?
Polenta is a porridge-like popular Italian dish made from ground corn. It is basically cornmeal mush. It attains a creamy texture due to the gelatinization of starch in the grain. It is not completely homogeneous like oatmeal porridge, because the corn used is coarsely ground. Moreover, the cornmeal used to make polenta is specifically made from hard grain, such as 'flint corn.' The grits used in South America are made from a class of corn called 'dent corn,' and they become almost 'mushy' when cooked. Polenta is often more coarse than grits. Some people use medium- or finely-ground cornmeal for polenta. The stone-ground raw cornmeal is also referred to as 'polenta.' The cornmeal can be white or yellow, with the white type having a more delicate flavor.
Ingredients in Traditional Polenta
Stone-ground coarse cornmeal, especially made from 'flint corn'.
Parmesan for soft polenta (optional)
Salt and pepper
Traditional Polenta Recipe
Polenta is often cooked in a huge copper pot, called a 'paiolo
.' You can boil 4 cups of water in a large (polenta pops up during the process of cooking, so take a large pan), heavy sauce pan. Add 1 teaspoon salt. To make softer polenta, take 5 cups of water. Many recipes use milk instead of water. Some use both milk and water.
Pour 1 cup coarse/medium/fine cornmeal into the boiling water gradually. Stir well. Continue stirring for 4 - 5 minutes, until the mixture thickens.
Simmer and cook for at least 45 minutes. Do not let the cornmeal stick to the bottom of the pan. Stirring every 5 minutes, watch how the mixture thickens. If you feel, add some water (half cup), and continue stirring until the grains get cooked. Once cooked, they would appear swollen.
Add salt (if necessary) and pepper. If you are going to enjoy this hot and soft polenta, add 6 tablespoons of butter to the pot, and stir well before pouring it into a bowl. You can sprinkle some Parmesan if you like.
If you love firm polenta, lightly butter a shallow dish, and pour the cooked cornmeal into it. As it cools to room temperature, it will solidify. You can cover it and refrigerate it for up to 3 days.
Chilled polenta can be cut into squares, balls, patties, or sticks, and then baked, grilled, or fried to make a crispy alternative.
Thus, traditionally prepared polenta does not contain gluten. These days, premade (instant) polenta tubes are available in stores. They can significantly reduce the cooking time. Trader Joe's precooked organic polenta is gluten-free, vegan, and kosher.
Fancy polenta may contain lots of seasoning and several other ingredients like bran, crushed garlic, fresh herbs, bay leaf, onion, sauces, buckwheat, sausages, fried egg, or stock. Some enjoy it layered with meat and cheese, and then baked like lasagna. While eating in restaurants, make sure that the polenta served is gluten-free. There are chances of cross contamination too (using the same utensils for preparing different types of foods). Similarly, you may have to ask and confirm whether the polenta manufacturer does not use the equipment used to produce wheat-based products to produce polenta.
Those diagnosed with celiac disease or non-celiac gluten intolerance may suffer from stomach pain, indigestion, bloating, headaches, or fatigue, after consumption of gluten. While eating out, they need to ask several questions to the restaurant staff until they are sure that the food they have ordered does not contain gluten. A local helpline can guide them about authentic (certified by the local celiac association) restaurants that serve gluten-free food.
Last but not the least, although cornmeal does not contain gluten, most corn bread mixes and corn breads will have wheat flour (and obviously gluten), so read the labels carefully before buying any food products.