Weekend Meditation

Harold and Paul Make Polenta

published Sep 14, 2014
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(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Last week, on the same day, I encountered two very different recipes for polenta. One had a practicality born of science, curiosity and efficiency. The other was much more rooted in time and tradition. One quick, the other slow. One required a modern appliance; the other, sourcing a special, stoneground organic polenta. The former I discovered, rather fittingly, while listening to a podcast and the later, equally fittingly, while sitting on a couch next to an open window while browsing through a book.

(Image credit: Dana Velden)

Depending on your values, or perhaps on the particular circumstances of your day, you may find one polenta method more appealing then the other. The first, from the venerable Harold McGee, is cooked in a matter of minutes in a microwave. The second, from Paul Bertolli’s much beloved Cooking by Hand, involves several steps and spends at least three hours on the stove.

I should warn you that this is not a post about how microwaves are evil and old ways are better. Nor is this a rant about how the slow food people are pretentious and out of touch with today’s busy cook. This is not a vinyl vs digital, book vs iPad competition. These two gentlemen are not enemies. As a matter of fact, Mr. McGee wrote a very eloquent endorsement of Mr. Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand which can be found on the back cover of the book. And Mr. Bertolli has apparently created a line of frozen food for Costco which, by the way, includes a frozen polenta.

And further, I cannot tell you which method makes the best polenta as I own neither a microwave nor a bag of fresh milled, whole-grist polenta. I suspect that each has its virtues, depending on the needs of the moment, but I have no hard proof of that.

What I think is worth noting is that we live in a time when we can have our three- minute polenta and we can have our three-hour polenta. We can chose either the speed and efficiency of the microwave or the beauty and soulfulness of a pot gently simmering on the back of the stove. And that’s kind of wonderful, don’t you think?

I’m happy and grateful for the scientist in Mr. McGee, whose pragmatic approach to the microwave helps us to discover the best ways to use this tool. (Mr. McGee also notes in that podcast that vegetables cooked in the microwave actually retain more vitamins than if they’d been steamed or boiled.) And I’m grateful to Mr. Bertolli for his focus and authenticity. To cook a recipe from his book is often a day-long immersion in a thoroughly sensual experience.

I suppose if forced to choose between the two, I would choose Mr. Bertolli. Mr. McGee goes on to end his discussion of the microwave by declaring that with the microwave “you don’t have to worry about all the usual things that you worry on the stovetop.” The truth is, I like the worries of the stovetop and the kitchen. I like peering into a pot to check its progress or cooking a recipe several times over to work out its kinks. I like a little fuss and bother.

Cooking for me is a complete engagement of body, heart and mind and, when it’s over, I can sit down with someone I care about and share with them the fruits of this labor. Rare is the meal that isn’t worth a little extra effort, a little sweat and strain. Rare is the belly, and the heart, that doesn’t receive this with pleasure and gratitude and that wonderful little moan that people make when they’ve tasted something really satisfying and delicious.

• For more on Harold McGee’s microwave endorsement, go to this NPR page.
• Paul Bertolli’s Cooking by Hand, from Amazon.

Update September 14, 2014: It’s interesting to note that I still feel this way. That I’m still grateful for convenience and the many offerings of modern life (health, clean water, podcasts.) And I’m equally grateful that the old ways haven’t lost their place. That I have built a life that can make room for the occasional three hour pot of polenta, that I can find value and inspiration in the rooted and more complex ways of being.

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I hope you enjoyed this encore Weekend Meditation, originally posted in October, 2011. I will be posting these vintage posts every Sunday (with the occasional new post, if I can manage!) for the next several months while I focus on writing my first book.