Food Challenge 2013: Winter, Burpees and Polenta

When I grew up in Brazil, polenta was considered the food of the poor, food of the countryside. It was served sometimes along rice and beans, but to me it just looked like a nasty shapeless, tasteless blob. No desire to even try.

It was not until years later, when I was visiting my argentinian aunt, that I rediscovered polenta, and how truly tasty, versatile, and beautiful a grain it is. It was a very cold night during winter in the Mexico mountains; there was no heat in the house, which was made of cement with tile floors. Cold. It was during christmas time, and people were coming over to celebrate, eat and party.

So my aunt decided she was going to make a big pot of polenta for everyone. She started to boil water in a huge pot, which warmed the room… and, as the water boiled, she stirred in the polenta, like gold pouring into water. The water became thicker and thicker, and turned into porridge. Beautiful golden porridge. She added butter, olive oil, salt… and then what I had never seen before. Pasta sauce! She swirled pasta sauce into the polenta, always stirring, but didn't completely mix it in. As I watched in amazement how much food she had just magically created, she told me she had made argentinian-style polenta. But she was not done. After serving everyone big bowls of porridge, she grated parmesan on top of each bowl, and we all swirled the food a bit more. The cheese melted. Lots of cheese- I could eat that!

So I tried it… it was delicious, and warming to the soul. I have since made polenta every winter, to warm myself, to feel strong, for its incredible taste, and for the speed with which I can make it as well. For polenta I boil water with olive oil/butter and salt just as I would for pasta. But then I drizzle polenta in, and stir the mixture… and I have a meal ready in less than five minutes. I add pasta sauce or fresh tomatoes and parsley… pecorino or parmesan… and make sure I eat very very little of it. This stuff will expand in the stomach so quickly that before I realize I can barely move I am so full.

The easiest way I found to make polenta, when making just one portion, is to put one cup of water to boil. When the water starts to boil, turn the heat to medium low or low (depending on the stove), add salt and olive oil or butter… and then add 1/4 to 1/3 cup of coarse polenta grain to the water while constantly stirring it. If you don't stir it, it will ''empelotar," form little balls (pelotas), which are highly unpleasant to eat, as they are essentially dry polenta balls. So do not stop stirring the goo until it is firm enough to your liking, really anything from the consistency of soup to mashed potatoes, up to you. I like it softer, seems to me to be lighter that way. Turn the fire off, or keep it super low, and add pasta sauce, preferably heated. Serve, and add cheese… the whole process takes about 10 minutes, 15 minutes if you choose to clean up everything before eating. Or just eat straight out of the pan, and avoid washing one more dish- valuable time saver for those of us with no dish washers, and papers and exams ahead of us… and yet who want to continue to eat well to remain healthy, lean and strong.

And as the burpee count gets higher and higher... and there are always burpees left to do at night… the ultimate test becomes "can I do burpees after eating polenta." That is the test- if I can eat within my means, and my belly is not full, then hell yea no problem. But if I feel like I will die of bricks in my stomach when I try to jump… then I know next time to take my time and slowly enjoy that rich golden food. Eat less, and be nourished by this incredible food.

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