Mamaliga (Polenta) Cornmeal Mush
Once upon a time, just about where Romania is now, there was a land called Dacia (rhymes with “got’cha”). The Dacians are no more, having been invaded by the Roman Empire in 108 C.E. The resulting population became Romanians and Romania. This explains the similarities in Romanian and Italian cultures, and a shared dish: cornmeal mush. In Italy, it is Polenta, but in Romania, it is Mamaliga, and eaten with almost everything and at every meal.
Mamaliga (mama-leega) is cheap and easy to make, but requires undivided attention. This is usually the last dish to be prepared, while other family members are setting out the rest of the meal.
A porridge stick or thick handle end of a wooden utensil will help keep the mixture out of the corners of your saucepan. If you have a pan with rounded lower edges, so much the better. If not, just use a wooden spoon and be thorough. It’s a lot like making stove-top fudge in that respect. The whole process should take between 7-10 minutes.
This recipe makes 12 servings, because leftovers (see below):
1 ½ cups cornmeal
4 cups water
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon salt
Butter and shredded cheese (optional)
Put the water in a medium-sized saucepan and turn heat to medium high. Using a flat whisk, whisk constantly, beginning while the water is still cold. Add the olive oil and salt. Still whisking – never stop whisking – add the cornmeal a little at a time, whisking the mixture into an ever denser slurry until all of the cornmeal is incorporated. Whisk until the mixture begins to thicken and bubble. Turn down to a low simmer and switch to a porridge stick or the handle end of a large wooden spoon. Stir until the mush is thick and begins to pull away from the pan. Still stirring – never stop stirring – you may add the butter and/or cheese at this point. Using a spatula, pour out onto a serving plate all at once. It will conform to the shape of the platter and solidify as it cools to serving temperature. It is a lovely sight to bring to the table. Serve with a large spoon.
This is so great with any kind of chicken stew, and of course Sarmalis (cabbage rolls). Mamaliga may be used as a base for just about anything you would put over rice or noodles: beans, stew, chili, chicken & gravy, vegetarian or vegan dishes, etc. Just with gravy, sauce, or butter is awesome too.
Mamaliga is creamy warm comfort food, right up there with mashed potatoes.
Cold leftovers may be sliced, heated in a frying pan, and topped with other leftovers. When my grandfather came to visit, my mom would make a traditional breakfast of fried eggs and mamaliga topped with feta cheese crumbles.