It often happens that a nation of people will identify themselves as a distinct culture by their traditional foods. For Italians, it always seems both pasta and pizza are the cornerstones of what makes Italian food “Italian”. However, there is a staple food of Northern Italy that does not get the recognition, but certainly makes up the third aspect of the Italian food trinity: humble, yet versatile and satisfying Italian polenta. Italian cuisine has been characterized by being the food of the peasant and just as poor Southern Italians worked the fields with their bellies full of pasta, Northern Italians subsisted on little more than polenta for centuries. In this way, Italian polenta is truly a national dish, and may have a history much more ancient than either pizza or pasta. In the area where I live, around a small city called Vicenza, polenta is one of the most appreciated traditional dishes you might possibly think of; if you have never tried this popular recipe before, get cooking and try it as soon as you can. You will be amazed!
In a medium cast-iron saucepan or other heavy pot, bring all ingredients except cornmeal to simmer over medium heat. Very slowly, begin to sift corn meal into the pan through the fingers of one hand, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or whisk. (This operation will be greatly facilitated if the meal is scooped by the handful from a wide bowl.)
Gradually sift remaining meal into the pan, continue to stir, and reduce heat to medium low. Continue to stir until the polenta is smooth and thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan as it is stirred, about 30 minutes. Discard bay leaf, pour polenta into a serving bowl or onto a wooden board, and allow it to rest 10 minutes. To serve from the bowl, dip a large spoon into hot water and scoop the polenta onto individual dishes, dipping the spoon into the water between scoops. To serve from the board, cut Italian polenta into segments with a thin, taut string or knife and transfer to plates with a spatula or cake server.