When mornings become crisp and day melts into night sooner and sooner, that can only mean one thing: it’s polenta soup season. Cozy and warming, but not as heavy as the long-cooked stews and braises of deep winter, this soup is the perfect transition recipe as the leaves turn and summer fades into fall. It’s the kind of recipe you’ll want to make after a cheerful afternoon picking apples and drinking crisp glasses of cider.
Go beyond polenta and short ribs... Polenta soup is cozy, not heavy.
Polenta gets a lot of attention. As it should! Served warm and creamy, it’s a magnificent base for hearty braised short ribs or stewed vegetables. It’s also fabulous chilled, sliced, and pan-fried until its exterior is light and crispy, with a meltingly creamy center. But it also often gets lumped together with heavy, deep-winter cuisine. It does shine in those instances, but the textures you can achieve are what make it so versatile. And in this soup, my version of a Tuscan comfort classic, it’s all about the texture.
What to Expect:
Polenta's thickening power and buttery flavor create a cozy yet light base for soup.
A bowl of this polenta soup is comforting and delicious, packed with different flavors and textures. The polenta adds heft and flavor without weighing down the meal.
- Kale and white beans, two comforting soup-er stars, make up the bulk of this soup. Creamy, slightly nutty cannellini are my go-to, but any canned bean will work. Cavolo nero (aka lacinato kale or dino kale) has a wonderfully tender texture when cooked, and is traditional in this recipe. Curly kale or other hearty green will also work beautifully.
- Onion, fennel bulb, garlic, and celery all add savory richness to the base. While they do add some texture, they should all be mostly tender and somewhat silky by the end of cooking.
- Polenta is, of course, key to the character of this soup. A brand that prides itself on small batches will give you the best flavor– it should taste of corn! The coarse texture of polenta (coarser than regular corn meal) results in small, tender grains suspended in broth, rather than disappearing into the mix. The natural starches thicken the broth as it simmers, giving the soup a luscious texture.
- A sprinkle of shaved cheese and crispy prosciutto make excellent garnishes. Despite the many textures, the soup itself is quite lean and light, so the bursts of richness are a wonderful and welcome contrast.
Work Smarter, Not Harder
A prime example of Tuscany's "cucina povera," this polenta soup makes a masterpiece out of humble ingredients.
In my opinion, the success of a soup rests heavily on its base: the broth. However, that doesn’t mean that a recipe has to use pre-made stock. You can use several different approaches to achieve a winning soup, even if you’re only using water! Here’s how this recipe coaxes out big flavor:
- Aromatics: A mix of garlic, onion, celery, and fennel make a fantastic base for simmering the polenta. Starting with this mixture immediately infuses the soup with complexity. While you can use stock, thanks to the flavorful aromatics in the first step, using stock is completely optional.
- Polenta: Picking a good quality coarse cornmeal will set you up for great flavor with zero extra effort. The more recently the corn has been milled, the better the flavor. Ideally, seek out a brand that puts the mill date right on the packaging. My personal favorite is Hayden Flour Mills, but there are many good options on the market these days.
- Proper Seasoning: This soup would be completely vegan, if not for the optional cheese and prosciutto garnishes. Since most vegetables are quite low in natural salts, you need to add your own! There is salt built into the recipe, but it your final dish tastes a bit flat add more salt a generous pinch at a time. If you’re using stock you’ll likely need less salt, but don’t be afraid to season well before serving!
Garnishes help to round out each bowlful:
As mentioned above, this soup is actually quite light and lean. If your night is on the chillier side (or you’re just craving a bit more oomph), grab some cheese! Like basic creamy polenta, this soup tastes great with a few spoonfuls of Parmesan stirred right in before serving. It melts into the broth and infuses the whole pot with a hint of umami. Larger shreds of Parmesan make a great garnish, giving you bursts of that savory, nutty flavor. A dollop of unsweetened whipped cream or crème fraiche will add a nice amount of silkiness, too. If you eat meat, I strongly recommend crisping up some prosciutto to sprinkle at the table. Its super-crisp texture is dynamite here.
Notes for Success:
To cheese or not to cheese? Stirring in a bit of cheese (or other dairy) right before serving is a delicious way to add a touch of savory richness. Whether or not you decide to use that extra bit of cheese, do keep in mind that it will affect your salt levels. If you salt to perfection before stirring in cheese, your final bowlful might be too salty! If you’re watching your salt levels for health reasons, you might prefer to skip the cheese, so you can more accurately control how much sodium you are adding to the pot. On the other hand, I find that adding cheese can be a good way for some cooks to bypass their salt-squeamishness–a generous pinch of Kosher salt looks like a lot, even if it’s actually only a quarter teaspoon! Whether you’re adjusting your salt levels with salty cheese or just salty salt, taste and adjust everything before serving!
Polenta Soup with Kale and Crispy Prosciutto (Farinata con Cavolo Nero)
- 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
- 1 yellow onion, chopped
- 1 small fennel bulb, core removed, finely chopped (Optional)
- 1 large celery stalk, finely chopped
- 4 garlic cloves, finely chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh sage, minced
- Kosher salt and black pepper
- ½ pound kale, stems removed and leaves chopped (1-inch pieces or smaller)
- 6 cups water or your preferred stock
- ½ cup coarse cornmeal (polenta)
- 1 14-ounce can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
- ¼ cup finely grated Parmesan (Optional, See Notes)
- Crispy prosciutto
- Grated Parmesan
- Extra virgin olive oil
- Crème fraiche or unsweetened whipped cream (See Notes)
- Step 1In a large pot over medium, heat the oil until shimmering. Add the onion, fennel (if using), garlic, rosemary, sage, 2 teaspoons salt, and 1 teaspoon pepper. Cook, stirring often, until the onion has begun to turn translucent, about 5 to 7 minutes. Add the kale and stir until wilted, 1 to 2 minutes.
- Step 2Add the water or stock, then whisk in the cornmeal. Bring to a simmer, then reduce to medium-low and cook, uncovered, until the polenta is almost tender, about 20 minutes. Stir in the beans and continue to cook, stirring often, until both the kale and cornmeal are tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the Parmesan (if using), then season with salt and pepper. Serve sprinkled with cheese, crispy prosciutto, and drizzled with oil. For a slightly creamier bowlful, add a dollop of crème fraiche or unsweetened whipped cream to each serving.