LA PICCOLA CUCINA
Welcome to my “Little Kitchen”
As I sit here and watch snowflakes dance outside my kitchen window I think of that prime example of rustic, simple winter food that I love – polenta. Although some think of it as cornmeal porridge, it has become as fashionable as all of the other foods of the poor. Still a specialty of Northern Italy, it is the ultimate comfort food; it soaks up flavor, and provides great nourishment.
Cornmeal comes in different grades and in different colors: a bright corn-yellow is the norm but there is also a white version and one blended with dark buckwheat called polenta taragna. It can be fine-grain which cooks up smooth and creamy, but I think that it lacks the rich corn taste and slightly chewy feel of the coarser grain that I prefer. Instant versions tend to be somewhat flavorless and pre-cooked versions are rubbery and totally unappealing.
Italians serve polenta at least a hundred ways, as an antipasto, a main course, a side dish, and breakfast or even for dessert. Entire cookbooks have been devoted to polenta. It can be eaten soft and hot when traditionally poured onto a wooden board and topped with a hearty meat ragu or more simply cooked in milk or cream and served in a bowl with butter and cheese. It can be cooled to firm, and then sliced and fried, broiled or grilled and topped with sauces, meats, fish or tangy cheese. For a variation on lasagne, polenta squares can be layered in a casserole and baked with vegetables or sweet sausages, tomato sauce and cheese. Tuscans often beat polenta into their minestrones or vegetable soups making a thick meal in a bowl. Polenta can also be served as a sweet dish when paired with baked pears, a dollop of mascarpone cheese and shaved dark chocolate or more simply with mascarpone cheese and chestnut honey. And don’t forget breakfast and my alternative to pancakes – fry firm polenta slices in butter until crisp and top with fresh fruit and maple syrup.
Traditionalists (myself included) have always cooked polenta on the stovetop in a copper cauldron “paiolo” stirring continuously with a huge wooden spoon to prevent it from becoming lumpy. Long cooking definitely develops deeper corn flavor but the oven method pretty much eliminates all of the stirring. I know that you will be surprised at how this no fuss method creates a polenta so good it could be served by itself. Combine 2 quarts of water, 2 C. coarse cornmeal, 1 1/2 T. sea salt and 2 T. butter in a 3-4 quart oven-proof saucepan or baking dish. Bake at 350°F for about 1 hour and 20 minutes. Remove the pan from the oven, give it a good stir, taste and adjust the salt seasoning, and continue to bake for 10 more minutes. Remove from the oven and set aside 5 minutes to rest before serving.
POLENTA CUNSA – POLENTA CONCIA – POLENTA GRASSA
Polenta concia or in dialect cunsa, from the northwest region of Piemonte, is translated as messed up polenta. Once you see the ingredients you can also understand why it is also called polenta grassa (fat). In this recipe cooked polenta is layered as in lasagne with fontina cheese, heavy cream, nutmeg and topped with sautéed mushrooms. Good honest Northern Italian – stick to the ribs and keep out the chill!
Prepare polenta as previously described.
- 1/2 lb. Fontina Valdostana
- freshly grated nutmeg
- heavy cream
- 1 lb. mushrooms, white or cremini button, or a mixture of portobello, shitake and button, quickly rinsed, trimmed and sliced
- 1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
- 1/4 C. olive oil
- Salt & Pepper (S & P)
Soak the porcini mushrooms in warm water to cover for about 20 min. Remove the porcini from the water and dry. Do not drain in a sieve, as the water will be sandy. Strain the water and reserve for another use. Heat the olive oil in a large sauté pan, add the sliced fresh mushrooms and toss over high heat. Add S & P, cover the pan and cook for about 2 minutes to sweat the mushrooms. Remove the cover, and over high heat, evaporate the abundant water that came out of the mushrooms. This will intensify their flavor. Layer a buttered baking dish with polenta. Top with S & P, nutmeg, heavy cream, and shredded or thin slices of Fontina cheese. Continue to layer the polenta with S & P, nutmeg, cream and cheese to build about 3 layers. On the top layer spread the mushrooms, knobs of butter, more Fontina, S & P, nutmeg and heavy cream. Bake at 350°F. until bubbling. Serve hot.
First published in the “The North End News” March 19, 2007
Polenta Alpina Savoie-medium grain available at:
151 Richmond St.
Tel (617) 523-8743