Joni Woolf: Try polenta this way — and add Tuscan Beef Stew

Published 10:02 pm Friday, September 21, 2018

Polenta is one of those foods that has appeared (or reappeared) on the market in recent years, challenging the long-standing popularity of grits, the more common Southern dish made from corn. For Christmas last year, my oldest grandson, Bryan Schroeder, gave me a package of grits and a package of polenta from Canewater Farm in Darien, Georgia. Since it contained no preservatives, it had to be refrigerated, so I put it in the freezer — and forgot it. Recently, I received a copy of a food magazine entitled Milk Street, and published out of Boston. It featured a long article about the proper way to cook polenta, and having no supper plans and not much food in the refrigerator, I decided to pull out my bag of polenta and try their method. In a word: perfect. Their method beats the old-time, top-of-the-stove, stir-and-add-water-method by a mile. It takes longer, but when time is not a factor, I recommend this method unequivocally. It was soft and smooth and luscious and quite good with just a small pat of butter. But since I now trust their recipes (at least this one), I’ll describe the Tuscan Beef Stew which they added to accompany the luscious polenta.

Soft Polenta
2 cups polenta (recipe calls it cornmeal; we buy it as polenta)
Kosher salt and ground black pepper
11 cups of water
Heat the oven to 375 degrees F. with a rack in the lower-middle position. In a large Dutch oven (I used a cast iron one) whisk together the polenta, 1 tablespoon salt and 11 cups of water. Bring to a gentle simmer over medium high heat, stirring frequently to prevent clumping. Transfer the pot, uncovered, to the oven and bake for 1 hour. Remove the pot from the oven. Carefully whisk until smooth, then use a wooden spoon to scrape along the bottom and into the corners of the pot to loosen any stuck bits. Return the uncovered pot to the oven and cook until thick and creamy, 10 to 30 minutes (I cooked another 20 minutes). Remove from the oven and whisk vigorously until smooth and again use the wooden spoon to scrape the bottom. Let stand for 5 minutes and season with salt and pepper (I recommend less salt).

Tuscan Beef and Black Pepper Stew
(Peposo alla Fornacina)
6 ½ to 7-pound boneless beef chuck roast, well-trimmed and cut into 2-inch chunks
Kosher salt and coarsely ground black pepper
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 large yellow onion, halved and thinly sliced
12 medium garlic cloves, peeled
3 tablespoons tomato paste
2 sprigs rosemary, plus 1 tablespoon minced fresh rosemary
2 cups dry red wine
Heat the oven to 325 degrees F. with a rack in the lower middle position. Place the beef in a large bowl, sprinkle with 1 tablespoon salt and 2 tablespoons pepper, then toss. In a large Dutch oven over medium, heat the oil under shimmering. Add the onion and garlic and cook, stirring, until the onion is lightly browned, 7 to 9 minutes. Add the tomato paste and cook, stirring, until starting to brown, 3 to 5 minutes. Nestle the beef and rosemary springs in the onion mixture, cover and transfer to the oven. Cook for two hours. Remove the pot from the oven. Stir, then return to the oven uncovered. Cook until a metal skewer inserted into a piece of beef meets no resistance, another 1 to 1 ½ hours. Using a slotted spoon, transfer the meat to a bowl. Strain the meat juices into a fat separator or bowl, pressing on the solids; discard the solids. Pour the wine into the empty pot and bring to a boil over medium-high, scraping up any browned bits. Reduce to medium and simmer until the wine is syrupy and reduced to 1 cup, 5 to 7 minutes. Meanwhile, if you strained the meat juices into a bowl, use a spoon to skim off and discard the fat from the surface. Pour the defatted meat juices into the pot. Bring to a simmer over medium-high and cook, stirring, until thickened to the consistency of heavy cream, 5 to 7 minutes. Return the beef to the pot, add the minced rosemary and stir gently. Bring to a gentle simmer and cook, stirring, until the meat is heated through, 4 to 5 minutes. Stir in 2 teaspoons pepper, then taste and season with salt, if needed. Serve atop one or two cups of polenta (depending on appetites), in a pasta dish. Sounds delicious.

One noticeable feature of these Italian recipes is the time it takes to prepare. Their concern, obviously, is not with the clock. It is with the careful preparation, the step-by-step progression of adding first one thing, then another. You can almost see the cook moving slowly but purposefully around the kitchen, savoring the aromas that come from blending subtle flavors. Perhaps, with this recipe, we might follow suit: take time to smell the beef stew. And the flowers.

Joni Woolf, a writer and editor, now lives in Schley County, having moved from her home in Macon several years ago. Contact her at