Thursday, January 10, 2008

Comfort me with Polenta (an Apples & Thyme Entry)

This time of the year after the extravaganza of sugar and spice and everything nice, and then some, I find myself craving simple hearty fare. Piemontese cuisine doesn't disappoint. The market is quiet and slim pickings these days. Many of the usual vendors have hunkered down beside a small fire in a brazier and erected all manner of odd tents of sorts to protect themselves and their wares from the winter winds. Others have finished what they have to offer till spring when the foraging begins for all sorts of interesting and unusual greenage which offers itself up in the woods and abandoned refuges of overgrown and neglected places around town. Until then it's mostly a round up of the usual suspects of fennel, artichokes, chard, radicchio variations, apples, pears, oranges and lovely little clementines to tempt and treat. Gone are all the holiday indulgences of pomegranates, dates, oysters and lobster from our favorite stands. I did find a stash of fresh lychees for a decent price yesterday, which makes a nice light refreshing fruit for dessert after a very filling plate of polenta.
This post is really a celebration of my husbands family's long love affair of polenta. I decided to add this post into Vanielje Kitchen and Passionate Palate's monthly event Apples and Thyme a celebration of Mothers and Grandmothers and time spent with them in the kitchen. Fabrizio will be delighted to know he's being included with the women in th kitchen this month. Piemonte is famous for it's polenta, but it's the mountain dwellers, like ourselves, that have a particular soft spot for the creamy, hearty concoction. I have loved polenta ever since the first time I had it as a young adult. It is a welcome change from the fairly flat tasting grits, that I had not been raised on but took to once introduced to them at my older brother and his southern belle's wedding. It was an even bigger revelation, many years later, when introduced to Piemonte's heirloom maize varieties of "Ottofile" and "Pignolette". One being called the King's polenta, as it was served often to one of the kings of Savoy and the other being a cultivar from the introduction of high Andean mountain popcorn varieties to the local Italian varieties that were introduced back in Columbus's day.
I've always sought out the hard to find coarse ground polenta, as I don't really mind that it takes an hour to cook properly, the extra flavor and texture is so worth it. However I did find that my mountain man, Fabrizio, raised on his mama's and Nonna's polenta, knew a trick or two about making delicious polenta. Every baita, refugio, and traditional Piemontese restaurant, will normally have polenta on the menu alsong with one or several traditional meat stews, mushrooms or soft cheese. "La Baita", Fabrizio's family restaurant was no exception. Fabrizio's father always was a big hunter and helped keep the supply of wild goat, boar, and deer, topped up on the winter menu, helped out by other local hunters as well when the restaurant was in it's hey day. Fabrizio makes a mean pot of polenta especially when we use the organic stone ground heirloom varieties from our friends from "Il Frutto Permesso"
It was a staple of "La Baita" all those many years in business and now carried on at home. For us when we have guests at our inn, that want a local specialty and it's the right time of year, we like to comfort and fill them up with this mountain specialty. Occasionally we get a request to make it in one of our cooking seminars, but most people have little experience with truly old style polenta and the traditon of serving it family style on the wooden platter makes for a few oohs and ahs. I like to make plenty and with the overflow if we don't use the platter presentation then I press the extra polenta into a small loaf pan or bowl so that when it sets up I'm ready the next day for grilled or sauted wedges just begging to be topped with sauted wild musrhooms and a slice of some good Toma and a grating of Grana Padana, hard style cheese. It's one of my favorite "encore performance" (code for leftover) meals. Sometimes you find it in a market stall sliced thin and deep fried for a tempting fast food treat.

Polenta for a crowd
"Nonna Parise style"
For the Polenta
  • Needed 1 heavy 5 qt pot if you have it for a large batch. I used my cast iron pot, (that now has a new life making no knead bread,) for many years, before my investment in heavy duty 3 types of metal layered pots that I have never regretted breaking the bank to purchase.
  • I like a stone or coarse ground polenta, but you can use what ever you like and have time to make.
  • Fabrizio says 2 1/2 liter of boiling water for 1 kilo of polenta serves 6-8 people, you can adjust your proportions accordingly.
  • Bring your water to a boil, lightly salt your water with maybe a tsp of salt. (you can adjust salt at the end) Add 1 Tb. or so of olive oil.
  • When your water is at a full rolling boil, whisk in the the measured polentain a steady stream whisking the entire time to avoid lumps.
  • Whisk for a few minutes to insure all is smooth. Then lower the heat so that it just barely simmers.
  • Cover with lid and let it slowly cook, stirring every few minutes to make sure it isn't sticking too much or burning. It will stick to the bottom, don't worry too much as long as it isn't burning. With a decent pan, the entire layer can often be peeled off much to the delight of certain family members. Other wise, left to soak over night it cleans up easily even if it doesn't seem like it at first glance.
  • Usually takes 50 minutes or a bit more depending on your type of polenta or altitude.


Sausage Green Pea Sauce
  • Saute 1 small chopped onion with 1-2 cloves of garlic in a sauce pan with a bit of olive oil.
  • Add 2-3 inch sausage links to the sauce pan with the onion and continue cooking.
  • Season with a bay leaf or two, some mixed dried herbs your choice, a sprinkle of fennel seeds if you like.
  • Once the sausages start to lightly brown or are cooked on all sides add fresh chopped tomatos, usually one person. Or use a can of diced tomatos and a splash of stock or water to keep it all saucey as it reduces down a bit.
  • Simmer until it has reduced and the sauce doesn't look raw, about 20 minutes.
  • Just before serving add some frozen peas ( the smaller ones here are so tasty)and simmer till they are just done. Adjust seasonings and serve over your cooked polenta.


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