If you have been to Italy, then you will be familiar with all the sorts of appetizers served in local bars along with the traditional aperitivo. Go to Venice, and you will find a particular local favourite – savoury crostini made with polenta.
You don’t need to plan a party to throw together some crostini to enjoy with an aperitive in hand, sitting outdoors on one of these warm summer nights.
There is possibly no appetizer easier and quicker to be prepared than classic Italian crostini. All you need to do is fry a loaf of bread in a skillet with hot olive oil or directly brush it with abundant olive oil to toasted it in the oven or put on your barbeque. Then add any topping you like, such as different hams, cheeses, vegetables, and fruits.
There are of course some further twists here.
Especially in the northern part of Italy, you will find local bars to serve crostini using polenta as the base instead of bread.
These delicious black polenta crostini topped with gamberetti (prawns) can be found in several bars in Venice, where they are served as the bar’s flagship ‘cicchetti’ (small bites).
What is polenta
Polenta originates in the northern part of Italy and in the past was a typical peasant and working-class dish. Today it has become quite popular across Italy (though you will find it much less on the menu then in the north) and even gaining recognition internationally.
It is made from cornmeal and other grains. Typically, coarse yellow cornmeal will be used with finished dish taking on a solid yellow colouring. However, occasionally white cornmeal is also used giving the dish a much paler appearance.
Polenta tastes like a hearty, slightly sweet corn porridge. The preparation is rather simple: it will be cooked with water. Once it is ready, it can be served in two different styles.
When served directly after cooking, polenta is resembling a soft, sticky porridge. It is typically topped up with sautéed meat, fish/seafood or vegetables and thick sauces.
Alternatively, setting it aside after cooking to let cool, polenta will harden and take on a solid form which can be baked, pan-fried, or grilled and again topped up with all sorts of meats, fish, and vegetables.
Whilst the soft form is typically served as a main dish, letting polenta turning solid, the range of possibilities is much wider and indeed it’s often served in small bites as appetizer or starter.
Serving polenta as the base for appetizers is a traditional way of serving it particularly in and around Venice. Locally, those appetizers are called ‘cicchetti’, and topped with all sorts of ingredients and served either warm or cold.
Especially in Venice, but occasionally elsewhere too, you will see polenta nera or black polenta.
Black polenta is made by adding ‘nero di sepia’ – squid ink.
What is Nero di Sepia and how to cook with it
Nero di Sepia is indeed squid ink. It’s a widely popular ingredient in the kitchens of the Mediterranean but is also sometimes used in several Asian dishes. It will add a black colour and a particular flavour to a large range of dishes, from rice/risotto to pasta and even bread. It’s taste profile is best described as a fishy, earthy ocean flavour.
Squid ink is a smooth, thicky liquid that is sold at speciality shops but that you can usually get from your local fishmonger who should be able to order it for you when you ask.
The squid ink is added to your pasta dough, or when using it in a risotto, added just before the end of the cooking time.
A word of warning when using squid ink. Start with adding just a small portion. It can taste quite strong when overused. Often, just a teaspoon of squid ink will be enough to add the right colour and flavour to your dish.
Recipe: Black Polenta Crostini with prawns
Serves 8-10 pieces
For the polenta
400 ml water
100 g white or yellow polenta
1 tablespoon olive oil
1 teaspoon squid ink (nero di sepia)
For the topping
200 g peeled and cooked prawns
1-2 tablespoons mayonnaise
1 teaspoon lemon juice, freshly squeezed
Start with preparing the polenta base.
In a saucepan, add the water with a pinch of salt and bring to a boil.
Whisk in the polenta, reduce the heat to a minimum and cover with a lid briefly, until the polenta stopes bubbling. Continue to cook the polenta for about 30 minutes until it becomes soft and tender. Keep stirring frequently, every 4-5 minutes.
Take from the heat and stir in the skid ink.
Transfer the polenta on a plastic or wooden work plate. Use a wet dough scraper to spread the polenta on the surface in an even about 1 cm thick layer. Let it sit on the surface for at least 2 hours until the polenta has hardened.
Preheat the oven to 250°C.
Hard-boil the eggs, set aside to let cool then cut into thin slices.
Cut the prawns in small pieces and mix with mayonnaise and lemon juice. Season with salt and pepper.
Cut the polenta in 8-10 pieces.
Transfer onto a baking tin lined with parchment paper. Drizzle with olive oil and bake for about 5 minutes until the polenta turns slightly crispy.
Top the polenta with the eggs then top up with the prawns. If you like you can also drizzle some poppy seeds on top.
Serve while still warm.