Feasts & Fancies: Polenta Cobbler

When I first came to England as a late teenager, in 1984, the biggest culture shock I experienced was undoubtedly the natives’ frugal attitude towards food.  It seemed to be perceived as an undeserved luxury rather than a basic right.  Moreover, there was a code to follow, which I needed to learn.

For instance, when my first English landlady remarked, “If my children had half your appetite, I’d never worry about their health,” something told me she didn’t mean it as a compliment.  When a host handed you a plate on which the food occupied about 25% of the surface area, with a benevolent, “Is that all right, my dear, or is that too much?” you did not reply, “Does it come with a magnifying glass?”  And when you were offered a second helping of the main course, “Yes, please!” was not always the best response.  You might just embarrass the host with too much directness.   It was preferable to resort to:

“Oh, all right, you’ve twisted my arm”

or “Are you sure? I feel I’m being greedy”

or “Well, perhaps a very, very tiny bit more”

and if you really wanted to make your host beam at you, then, “Oh, that’s so kind, that was truly delicious… but I couldn’t possibly… I’m so sorry.”

As a nineteen-year-old used to fighting off insistent offers of food in Italy, France, Greece and in her own family, I learnt, after the first few invitations in England, to wolf down a bowl of pasta at my home before going for a meal at someone else’s.  That way, not only could I assure the host that 25% of my plate area was such a huge amount of food and I didn’t know how I would manage to eat it all, but I could gracefully decline any subsequent offers with the sincerity of a full stomach.    

Of course, this is something of a generalisation.  My experience of English hospitality is limited to East Anglia, London, the Home Counties and the West Country.  I am not very familiar with Northern customs. Moreover, eating mores have changed in recent decades.  However, there is even now an assumption that women eat less than men.  More often than not, at a dinner party, my husband is offered a second helping before I am.  There is a persistent tendency for the hostess to coax a young man to finish the rest of, say, the salad left in a bowl, and ignore the young woman next to him, who might actually quite like the rest of the salad for herself because she is still hungry.

I no longer devour the vast amounts of food I used to as a young woman, but I still like to play it safe and whenever I am invited to someone else’s home for a meal for the first time, I generally have a small snack beforehand, and if I stay with friends overnight, I slip a packet of oatcakes into my bag.  Just in case.

In England, when you’re given a cup of tea, you’re often asked if you would like a biscuit.     Perhaps this is out of genuine concern for your figure or your blood sugar levels, although, oddly enough, whenever I place a heaped plate of biscuits before my own guests, I see them munch their way through several.  I guess they are so eager to be polite, they don’t mind sacrificing their own health and waistline in the process. 

There is a scene in the film My Fair Lady that always makes me cringe.  When Freddie Eynsford Hill rings the doorbell at Professor Higgins’s house, looking for Eliza Doolittle,  the housekeeper, Mrs Pearce, says, “Wouldn’t you like to come in, sir? They’re having dinner but you may wait in the hall.”

Yes, Higgins is a self-centred eccentric, but whenever I watch this film, I am horrified by the fact that Mrs Pearce doesn’t convey an invitation to join the household for dinner – or at least coffee and dessert.    Yes, it’s a Hollywood movie, and that makes it even more embarrassing: even often innacurate 1960’s Hollywood was aware of our hospitality traditions.

We were recently invited for dinner in a large Elizabethan house by a well-to-do couple.  It was a jolly party all round, and we all duly complimented the hostess on the main course.  She smiled.  “Who would like some more?” and just as we all looked at her expectantly, she added, her smile losing some of its brightness, “There are only a few potatoes left.”

I don’t know if it’s Protestant austerity or the fact that the climatic conditions of the island don’t favour a plentiful, varied crop, or if – as older English people have often told me – it’s a leftover of World War II privations (rationing for certain foodstuffs went on as late as 1954).  The fact remains that a degree of thriftiness is considered virtuous and sensible where food is concerned. 

Perhaps because of my upbringing, or my personality, I like meals to be hearty and abundant.  Here’s one that lends itself to merry conviviality and, given the time it takes to prepare, good to share – in several helpings – with as many friends as can fit at your table.


Your allies: 

(all measurements are approximate, see https://scribedoll.com/2023/01/15/new-blog-feasts-fancies/)

❧ Polenta

❧ Pinto beans

❧ One or two bay leaves

❧ Mushrooms

❧ Butter

❧ Sprout tops (or other cabbage greens)

❧ Grated parmesan

❧ Olive oil, salt, pepper

Soak the beans for at least 10 hours in plenty of cold water, then strain and rinse with fresh water. Put the beans into a large pan, cover generously with water, add salt and the bay leaves, and bring to boil.  Let boil briskly for twenty minutes or so, then turn down the heat slightly and let cook until ready.  At some point, add a little olive oil, to bring out the flavour of the beans.

Wash the mushrooms and slice off the bottom of the stalks. Fry in butter.  Once cooked, set aside.

Soak and wash the sprout tops, then steam them.  Sprout tops are tasty greens you can generally find only at small greengrocers rather than supermarkets – at least where we live.  In the absence of sprout tops, you can use shredded Savoy cabbage or chopped Brussels sprouts, or pretty much any other cruciferous vegetables, although personally I would advise against broccoli because they get mushy too easily. 

Oil a casserole or a deep baking dish.  Spoon in the beans, mushrooms and steamed sprout tops, either in layers, or all mixed together.  Add a little water from the boiled beans, just enough for a little sauce at the bottom of the dish.

Grate the parmesan.

Boil the water for the polenta, add a little salt.  Spoon the polenta in slowly, whisking gently as you go along to avoid lumps forming.  Keep stirring until it reaches the consistency of thick porridge.  Add a smidgeon of olive oil and a spare dusting of black pepper.

Making polenta is a hazardous activity and should come with a warning.  I guess there is a reason why in Northern Italy it is traditionally cooked in a cauldron, outdoors.  Apart from the smoke enhancing its flavour, you can stir the boiling maize with a long stick and stand far enough away so that while bubbling, the squirts of boiling polenta can’t reach you.  As I have a tiny kitchen, I watch the polenta very attentively, and as soon as I see a bubble forming on the surface, I quickly remove the pan from the heat and wait for it to calm down before I put it back on.  

When the desired consistency is achieved, mix the grated parmesan in with the polenta and spoon it in dollops on the vegetables in the casserole dish.  The mounds of polenta and parmesan don’t have to be identical.  Let them land the way they land, looking as if they don’t care.

Put in the oven and bake long enough for the top of the polenta to be a darker gold.



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19 Responses to Feasts & Fancies: Polenta Cobbler

  1. I’m with you on the heartiness and abundance of meals, Katia! I grew up in a family where the words, “Here, eat…” were synonymous with “We love you.” As such, that phrase was said often, not just to family, but to friends who stopped by unannounced. Within minutes after their arrival, the food would come out. Everything was shared. Interestingly, when I married, I discovered my husband’s Norwegian family acted exactly the same way as my Hungarian and Polish family did. Both our families had lived through the Depression and rationing and personal economic hard times, but whatever food they had was always offered generously, as an expression of love.

  2. Lori says:

    This recipe is truly enticing on this cold, windy day! And your description of the portion rules had me saying, “Yeah, how come?!”

  3. Anna says:

    It’s both hilarious and true to life story, Katya!! During my short 2-week-long stay in England (London area) as far back as 1995, I remember being a bit too much hungry all the time, ha-ha)) Once, on the way from some town back to London, my boyfriend and I stopped at a roadside pub. I was looking forward to having a large cup of hot tea and of course (how could it be otherwise?!)) a sandwich or a bun or a scone or at least a cookie. Our Russian mores (the word I learnt from your post btw)) do not contradict a drink plus something to eat)) To my great astonishment, I was just offered a cup of tea with no sugar, no food, but – yikes- milk (which is actually not my cup of tea))! But as they say – do in Rome as the Romans do. And I had to drink that as we say in Russian “pustoy chai” (empty tea)))) I love England, I’m passionate about the English language, I have friends in England, but there’s something that makes me a bit embarrassed – this degree of thriftiness, using your words. Still, long live the UK! Long live its numerous traditions which make this wonderful country so unique!!!

    • Scribe Doll says:

      Oh, Anna, your story made me laugh but also bow my head in shame. “Pustoy chai” – I’d forgotten that expression. My grandmother often used it. Thank you for your lovely praise of England – all countries have something wonderful about them (I think of Russian literature – especially poetry, hospitality, wit, music), but we all have characteristics, drawbacks, negative sides. Instead of “thriftiness”, in my head I sometimes use the word мелочность :-))

      • Anna says:

        Dear Katya, thank you for your comment to my comment)) I always appreciate your feedback to your readers’ comments. Yes, the word мелочность is in common use. Having said that, I’d rather use another word for it, I mean, in my head the word “thriftiness” is more associated with “экономность” or “расчётливость” in this case. For me, it has kind of a negative connotation…..ish:)))
        There’s one more thing I’d like to tell you: I’m truly delighted with your striking talent for writing. Not only do I read your posts for the sake of the exciting and informative contents. They also give me great pleasure in exploring the English language, getting to know new words and expressions, and overall, polishing up my English. if one can say so.

      • Scribe Doll says:

        “расчётливость” is what I say when I’m well disposed towards my fellow country folk… :–) Thank you so much for your kind words! They mean a great deal to me. I always enjoy your comments – you were one of my first readers when I started writing my blog.

  4. Silvia says:

    What a “delicious” story and meal!! Mi piace moltissimo come scrivi, é molto piacevole leggerti e provare a visualizzare quello che descrivi…fantastica, unica! Invito a cena da me con tuo marito quando ti capiterà di passare per Roma…e bis a volontà!:-)

  5. Francesca Di Gangi says:

    Ne avrei da raccontare sull’ospitalità sicula dalla quale derivo e su certe abbondanze a tavola, ma andrei off topic.
    Adoro la tua vena ironica! E sarà un piacere averti ospite a pranzo (e non solo), prima o poi…

  6. Reaseaorg says:

    Such an interesting post. As a culture I think you are right about the politeness before health etiquette expectations. Hope you’re having a great day 🙂

  7. John Bates says:

    Looks delicious. I’ll try a vegan version of this (butter/parmesan equivalents), but I don’t think I’ve combined pinto beans and mushrooms before. Perhaps add some liquid smoke to the polenta to try to reproduce the cauldron effect.

    • Scribe Doll says:

      Thank you so much for commenting. Do let me know how the vegan version turns out. The parmesan is not necessary: you can sprinkle some seeds on the polenta. And you can fry the mushrooms in olive oil.

  8. Sue Cumisky says:

    My Geordie (north east borders) mother- in – law once produced a full beef and Yorkshire pudding meal each for another 4 hungry people who arrived unexpectedly on a Sunday lunchtime. To this day I wonder where she it conjured up from as there had already been 6 hungry adults at the table, of whom one at least wanted seconds and got them.

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