My friend Ali and I met when we were three. Then we were in kindergarten together, and then first grade, and then she switched schools and we only lived five blocks apart, but never got to be in the same class again. Until junior year of college, when we conspired to spend the same semester in Florence. And it was heavenly. Better, even, than Mrs. Houk’s first-grade class! Better than pretty much anything.
Mostly what we did, of course, was eat. We ate enormous, oily tuna and artichoke sandwiches at the Antico Noe hole under a bridgeshop. We ate risotto ai fruiti di mare, filled with fat clams and chewy calamari, at the cheap and wonderful trattoria where we ended up dating the chef and waiter (long story short: a mistake—the boys, not the risotto). We ate dishes of ribolitta, dark with something called black cabbage that we would, years later, come to know at home as kale. We ate gelato every single day. We ate ravioli so freshly formed that we could still see the old woman’s thumbprints in the dough. We ate blood oranges and gorgonzola and gnocchi, and we gained twenty pounds each. We drank a lot of wine.
You have to look at cornmeal because I do not seem to have the emotional fortitude to get out my Italy photo album. Sigh.Also, we ate polenta in a tiny cavelike trattoria run from the same kitchen as the city’s famous and expensive Cibrèo restaurant. You could not eat there and not feel like you were getting away with something, because while the chic Italian silk-and-suede crowd paid a small fortune get fussed over with white linen and crystal water glasses, we ate the same food out back, on long wooden benches at long wooden tables, and the dishes we ordered cost $5 each. One was a heap of clams the size of your fingernail that arrived in a garlicky, tomato-y broth with a hunk of charred bread. The other was the polenta, and this polenta no longer exists anywhere but in my memory.
The polenta associated online with Cibrèo seems to involve masses of herbs, and I’m sure it’s delicious. But the one we ordered (over and over again) in 1989 was simpler: a mound of tender cornmeal, a moat of melted butter, a shower of parmesan and—Ali, I need you—green peppercorns? Maybe it was just black pepper, but I think it might have been green. It was as perfect a dish of food as I’ve ever eaten anywhere, and Ali was the perfect person to eat it with. To spend my life being friends with. To shepherd out of life, even, because lying around with her was so great, even at the end. But she’s the worst person to be left by, because there’s nobody else who remembers the same thing as me, and everything I forgot to ask her I will now never know. And I kind of can’t get over how much that sucks.Ali and Ben. But at least this polenta is pretty fucking close. Ali would love it. Try making your polenta this way—in the oven—even if you’re using it for something else, because it is basically foolproof and incredibly easy and hands-off. But do use some milk in it, which makes it all the more fabulous, and do consider serving it with the brown butter, because you will swoon. Birdy eats hers with a poached egg, and although that is much more Instagram-worthy, as a dish of food, I am being a purist here.
2 cups whole milk (use at least a cup of milk to 3 of water, but half milk is even better)2 cups water1 cup coarse cornmeal2 teaspoons Diamond kosher salt (or half as much table salt)4 tablespoons butter, divided use1 cup freshly grated parmesanFreshly ground black pepper
Heat the oven to 350. Pour the milk and water into a deep, lidded oven-proof casserole (not a huge one), and whisk in the cornmeal and salt. Put the pot in the oven and bake for 50 minutes.
Remove the polenta from the oven and whisk it. If the cornmeal isn’t tender or there’s still liquid in the pot, put it back in the oven for ten minutes, but otherwise, whisk in half the butter and half the cheese, then cover the polenta and let it sit while you brown the butter.
Melt the rest of the butter in a very small pan over medium heat, then continue cooking it, swirling the pan constantly, until the butter gets golden-brown and smells nutty and insane, another 3 or 4 minutes. Remember that it will cook for a bit longer after you turn the heat off, so maybe err on the side of cooking it to short.
Divide the polenta into “4” (ahem, really only three) bowls and top each with a spoonful of brown butter, a flurry of parmesan, and a good grinding of black pepper.
A poached egg can be added!