FIVE’s Polenta Is Classically Creamy
It's much more than just porridge.
To keep the polenta from separating, Chef Tonnelier recommends whisking over a low flame.
What can we say about a dish that suits breakfast just as perfectly as it suits lunch, dinner and snacktime—and is as mood-liftingly sun-colored and fortifyingly fluffy-creamy at each?
We can say that it’s versatile. Adaptable. Probably irresistible. Possibly international.
That’s true of pancakes and poached eggs—and of polenta, that northern-Italian staple whose porridge-y roots trace back to ancient Rome, where it was made with other grains besides corn.
At FIVE Restaurant in downtown Berkeley, mouth-meltingly soft polenta tastes as mild as the summer days during which that corn ripened. Freshly ground black pepper conjures a sharply exquisite contrast.
The idea behind this recipe “was to create an earthy dish using only a few items prepared in the best way to bring out their flavors” so that the final result is “savory and cohesive,” explained FIVE’s executive chef Stéphane Tonnelier.
The main ingredient is organic polenta from Bob’s Red Mill, “which is first cooked in white vegetable stock,” Tonnelier said. “Then heavy cream, Parmesan, and butter are added.”
“The polenta is first cooked in white vegetable stock,” Tonnelier said. “Then heavy cream, Parmesan, and butter are added.”
At FIVE, polenta is served in different ways to suit the changing seasons. Wintertime finds it served as a side dish with pork chops. Warmer weather finds it served all on its own, crowned with an invigoratingly foresty mushroom fricasee. Augmenting those maitake, portobello, pippin, king trumpet, and button mushrooms are shallots, garlic, white wine, parsley, thyme, rosemary, tarragon and heavy cream.
“Polenta is not that hard to work with, but the trickiest part in this dish specifically is making sure that the butter doesn’t break and separate. This entails constant whisking over a low flame, so there is a degree of precision and attention involved.”
Other than that, however, “it’s a fairly simple dish that really allows the flavors to shine through.”
And while the actual tastes of all those ingredients is crucial—the cream’s richness, the corn’s sweetness, the herbs’ summery spark—Tonnelier also prizes “the different textures that you can get from this dish as well as the different varieties of cooking methods you can apply to it.”
The dry, coarsely ground corn grits that we call polenta “can be soft, hard, fried, grilled, pan-seared, and baked: The options are really endless. It’s such a versatile ingredient that allows you to really use your imagination when preparing it.”
FIVE Restaurant, 2086 Allston Way, Berkeley, 510-225-6034, FIVE-berkeley.com.
Published online on Feb. 3, 2017 at 8:00 a.m.