Research mixed with memories from my childhood
Once upon a time when I was a child growing up in Romania, my grandpa used to make polenta for my family whenever we visited them in the summer.
As we sat around the table watching the steam from the hot polenta coil up to the ceiling and enveloping us in aromas of fresh corn, my grandpa delivered the same story about my cousin who had amused him with his polenta argument.
“I placed the big bowl of hot polenta on the table,” grandpa started narrating his usual story.
“Look at this polenta! Pure gold!” he exclaimed, trying to impress my cousin Darius, who was visiting from Bucharest, the capital of Romania.
“It is so delicious that not even the emperor eats such a great meal,” grandpa added with pride and grandeur while using a thin string instead of a knife to slice the polenta.
“Of course, the emperor is not eating such a meal!” Darius replied and rolled his eyes.
Luckily, our grandpa had a great sense of humor. He laughed till his cheeks hurt and tears rolled down his skinny face.
After this exchange, my grandpa told this story over and over until my parents started to repeat it to us children. And then we repeated it to our friends half-seriously, half-jokingly.
An emotional shift
“The heart has its reasons, which reason does not know…All our reasoning ends in surrender to feeling.” — Blaise Pascal
It took me more than 20 years to overcome my indifference to polenta, which like my cousin Darius, I considered the poor man’s meal since it only required water, salt, and corn.
Although my father cooked polenta for my mom and me with love and the same enthusiasm as his father, who had passed away when I was in middle school, I was too young to appreciate the emotional aspect of my father’s cooking the best meal for us.
And yet, I loved watching my father whistle and chirp around our gas kitchen stove every time he cooked polenta for us.
“Watch and learn, Mîț,” which means kitten in Romanian and was his endearing way to address me.
My father’s secret polenta recipe that if you’re reading this story is not a secret anymore:
Step one: boil water in a nonstick medium pot.
Step two: sprinkle very little corn flour in the boiling water and add one to two teaspoons of salt, depending on how big the polenta will be.
Step three: once the water starts boiling, keep sprinkling and mixing corn meal in the water and reduce the fire to low.
Step four: do not mix in a large amount of corn meal, as it will clump up, instead of the polenta being smooth.
Step five: add the necessary amount of corn meal, depending on how soft or hard you want the polenta and stir vigorously with a wooden spoon.
Step six: keep stirring until the polenta comes off the bottom of your pot easily, which means that it is done.
Step seven: My little enhancement to my father’s recipe. Add a tablespoon of butter right at the end before removing the polenta from the stove. Mix well to make sure that the butter has melted.
Step eight: Immediately pour the polenta on a bigger and deeper plate and make it into a round form just like I did in the picture above.
Step nine: enjoy your pot of gold!
Step 10: Refrigerate leftovers and have breakfast the next day. Heat up regular or plant-based milk and polenta. Add a little sugar, honey, or maple syrup for a nutritious and delicious meal, which I eat with delight, appreciation, and childhood nostalgia as an adult, mother, and marathon runner.
As a marathon runner, I appreciate my father’s polenta for its nutritional value:
“About eighty percent of the food on shelves of supermarkets today didn’t exist 100 years ago.” ― Larry McCleary MD, Feed Your Brain, Lose Your Belly: Experience Dynamic Weight Loss with the Brain-Belly Connection
Dr. McCleary is absolutely right! You could not find polenta on shelves of supermarkets even 50 years ago, which is why I was shocked when I saw already cooked polenta packaged at Safeway supermarket for the first time.
“How hard is it to cook polenta and enjoy it fresh?” I asked myself.
Needless to say, I cook my own polenta, which is not only my way to reconnect with my father’s memory of cooking polenta for us, as he is watching me from Heaven, but it is also a tasty and nutritional meal for me as marathon runner, who has to carefully balance running 40 to 60 miles a week with good nutrition.
I also know that the right nutrition and fueling can make me or break me as a competitive runner, who has run 14 marathons, including Boston, London, New York, and Chicago marathons. This summer, I am in full training for the Berlin marathon, which will be my 15th marathon and my fifth world marathon.
As I have become more serious about training and getting faster as a marathon runner, I read hundreds of articles about running and nutrition.
When I first read articles about the Kenyan runners, the best in the world, I was amazed to see that my father’s polenta was called Ugali and considered a super food by the Kenyan runners. Needless to say, I regained even more appreciation for my father’s ‘gold’, as he always liked to call the polenta, while he placed it in the middle of our table and served it with fresh fried fish that he caught in the rivers and lakes of my hometown Lugoj.
Rob Murray wrote in his article Ugali — The Kenyan Running Superfood: “Many a Kenyan runner swears by the inclusion of national dish Ugali in their diet as fuel for the hours of training they do. A form of porridge, maize flour is mixed with water to create a dough-like substance. This can then be used to scoop vegetables or a stew in the same way as naan bread.”
Not only are ugali and polenta gluten-free and excellent sources of carbohydrates, but they also go well with eggs, spinach, stew, and meat, making it a complete meal.
According to Web MD, a 100-gram serving of polenta cornmeal contains:
- 371 calories
- 8.5 grams of protein
- 77 grams of carbohydrates
- 6 grams of dietary fiber
Web MD also states that corn contains antioxidants that help to lessen or prevent damage from free radicals and phytonutrients – also known as phytochemicals. They may play a role in reducing the risk of chronic disease.
As a child eating my father’s pure ‘gold’ I never worried about the nutritional value of the polenta. I simply relished the smell of fresh corn and my father’s blue eyes twinkled with joy every time he cooked it for us.
And, yeah! I now know that I ate better than the emperor, as my grandpa said.
- Foods that seem unexciting are the ones we need to seek for their emotional and nutritional value.
- As always, the fewer the ingredients, the better the food is for us. Polenta only requires water, salt, and corn meal. Butter, herbs, cheese, and so on are optional.
- The type of food we choose can make us or break us.
- For all of us who didn’t grow on chicken nuggets, we need to express appreciation for real food and pass it on to the next generations.
- Leftovers polenta make a great breakfast the next day, so two meals are covered with little cooking effort and lots of love.
- I hope you will enjoy your pot of ‘gold' as much as I enjoy mine.
Newsbreak contributor, Mother, BA/MA in English, published author, poet, real estate broker/CEO, marathoner, & avid reader. Author of The Morsels of Love.