Archive | October, 2012

Polenta: The Staple Food of the North

Polenta Cooking in a Copper Paiolo

Polenta is (now) corn meal mush, and is one of the staple foods of northern Italy, where you will find it sliced and fried or grilled (often with a topping) as an antipasto, sauced much the way one might sauce pasta, transformed into rich casseroles, and served as a side dish, again either by the scoop (especially with a stew), or sliced and grilled, which imparts a delightful smoky tang.

In short, polenta is versatile.

Making it is straight forward. You’ll need:

  • A slightly abundant pound (500 g) coarsely ground corn meal (you want corn meal the consistency of fine to medium-grained sand, not flour, and if possible stone-ground)
  • 2 quarts (2 liters) boiling water (have more handy)
  • A heaping teaspoon of salt

Set the water on the fire in a wide bottomed pot (Italians use a copper pot like the one shown above, which is called a paiolo) and add the salt. When it comes to a boil, add the corn meal, in a slow stream to keep the water boiling, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon to keep lumps from forming. Continue stirring, in the same direction, as the mush thickens, for about a half-hour (the longer you stir the better the polenta will be; the finished polenta should have the consistency of firm mashed potatoes), adding boiling water as necessary. The polenta is done when it peels easily off the sides of the pot.

This is the standard technique you will find in all Italian cookbooks.

It does have a drawback, however: you have to stir constantly lest the polenta stick and burn, and stirring for a half hour or more is tiring. Enough that in Italy you will find paioli with motorized stirrers that work very well.

While convenient, a mechanized paiolo is not strictly necessary, however. A friend tells me that a friend of his stopped in a restaurant in the Valle D’Aosta in mid-afternoon and was served polenta immediately: The trick, the cook told her, was to bring the water in the paiolo to a boil as normal, salt it as normal, and stir in the cornmeal. Then cover the paiolo with a sheet of brown paper of the sort paper bags are made from, clamp a lid over the paper, and turn the heat way down.

No stirring, no fuss, the polenta is ready in 40 minutes, and you can keep it simmering for quite a bit longer.

“We’ve tried it,” he says, “and it really does work.”

Now that we’ve taken care of the recipe, a little history:

I noted above that polenta is now made from cornmeal. Prior to the introduction of corn to northern Italy in the late 1700s it was made from grains and legumes that were cooked until soft, mashed, and then seasoned with whatever was available. Frugal and uninspiring, perhaps, but nutritious enough to keep the poor who ate it alive.

With the introduction of corn things changed radically: it is more productive than the grains traditionally grown in Northern Italy, and the land owners realized that if they had their tenant farmers subsist on corn they would be able to devote more of their land to crops that would bring them income. So they did, milling the corn like they had milled the grains, and polenta came to mean corn meal mush.

Before long poor families subsisted on nothing but, as Pasquale Villari, a Senator of the Realm, reported in his book, Lettere Meridionali, in 1886: “…The farmers known as disobbligati (day laborers) support more than 20,000 families around Mantova, and there are many others who aren’t much better off. These laborers earn a wage of about 1.2 Lire per day, when they work, and their hardships last 10, 12, and even 14 hours per day; a Parliamentary commission investigating their lot justly termed their conditions homicidal. The farmers and their families survive almost exclusively on polenta, to which they add onions and bad cheese in the evening, but not always. When they’re working they also eat bread and soup once a week, but during the winter it’s polenta morning noon and night, and the three meals are often compressed into one. What’s more, the polenta is frequently made from corn that has spoiled for lack of drying kilns, and has either fermented or sprouted. This state of affairs worsens day by day, and has already begun to touch the more wealthy farmers, to the point that they have begun to sell their pigs, and the portion of grain assured them by their leases, to buy corn to stay their hunger throughout the winter.

Living exclusively on polenta had disastrous consequences for the north Italian poor: the simple mechanical grinding technique they used failed to release the nutrients, especially niacin, in the corn kernels, and niacin deficiency results in a frightful disease called pellagra; Mr. Villari says it “begins with head and back pains, numbness of the extremities, and stomach aches. The sight becomes foggy, hearing declines, and then palsy begins, starting in the trunk and spreading to the extremities and tongue. It’s generally a progressive disease, but can become acute, almost like typhus, and kill quickly. However, it usually takes several months, with flare-ups that exhaust the victim and can kill him in a variety of ways that mimic other diseases. It frequently induces madness, which is also intermittent, and takes many forms, in particular depression and despondency…”

While Pellagra was still widespread in the early 1900s, it faded as the economic conditions of the poor improved, allowing them to accompany their polenta with other foods, and it is by now all but forgotten. And polenta, which had been looked at with suspicion, because people did make the connection between an exclusively polenta-based diet and pellagra, is instead greeted with joy, because it is both tasty and versatile.


Risotto ai Funghi Porcini, Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms

Risotto ai Funghi, Mushroom Risotto

Risotto ai Funghi, Mushroom Risotto

Risotto with porcini mushrooms is a classic fall dish, and if you’re lucky enough to have fresh porcini, a perfect use for the mushroom stems (the caps are much better grilled — figure 3/4 pound to a pound (3-400 g) of stems, dirt & roots removed, and finely chopped).

If you do not have fresh porcini, this risotto will be very good with dried porcini too, and indeed Italians generally use dried porcini in preparing it. If you cannot find dried porcini either, use good quality local wild mushrooms.

  • A one-ounce packet dried porcini (25 g, or about a packed half cup)
  • 1/2 of a small onion, finely sliced
  • 1/4 cup plus 2 tablespoons butter, or: 3 tablespoons olive oil + 1/4 cup butter
  • 1 1/2 cups short grained rice along the lines of Arborio, Vialone Nano, or Carnaroli
  • 1/3 cup dry white wine, warmed
  • 1 cup (about 50 g) freshly grated Parmigiano
  • 1/3 cup (about 80 ml) heavy cream (optional)
  • The water the mushrooms were soaked in, strained, and a quart of simmering vegetable broth (see the photo below), beef broth, or unsalted bouillon
  • A bunch of parsley, minced
  • Salt and pepper to taste

Steep the porcini in a cup of boiling water for fifteen minutes.

While they are steeping, slice the onion finely and sauté it in either three tablespoons of oil or 1/4 cup of butter. When has turned a translucent gold remove it to a plate with a slotted spoon and stir the rice into the drippings in the pot. Sauté the rice for several minutes, until it becomes translucent, stirring constantly lest it stick and burn.

Return the onions to the pot, stir in the wine, and continue stirring until it has evaporated completely. Then stir in a first ladle of liquid, and while it’s absorbing, chop the mushrooms and strain the liquid they soaked in, as it may contain sand.

Add the mushrooms and their liquid to the rice, then continue adding water or broth a ladle at a time, stirring occasionally.

Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms, cooking

Risotto with Porcini Mushrooms, cooking

About five minutes before the rice is done, check seasoning.

As soon as the rice reaches the al dente stage turn off the heat, stir in the remaining butter, half the cheese, the cream if you’re using it, a little bit of ground pepper, the parsley, and cover for two minutes.

Serve the risotto with the remaining grated cheese.

How to make risotto, illustrated.

Yield: Four servings risotto ai funghi porcini, mushroom risotto.

Fagiuoli all’Ucceletto, Classic Tuscan Stewed Beans

Fagioli all'Uccelletto With Sausages

Fagioli all’Uccelletto With Sausages

Artusi calls fagioli all’uccelletto, which are cannellini beans simmered in a light tomatoey sauce, fagioli a guisa d’uccellini,  beans as if they were birds, because the beans are seasoned with sage much the way Tuscans season roasted small birds.

It makes sense if you think about it, because the sage does impart a certain similarity of flavor (especially if you go easy on the tomato in the beans), and fagiuoli all’uccelletto are a common accompaniment to braised dishes or stews in the winter months.

If you add partially cooked Italian link sausages to the fagioli all’uccelleto and finish cooking them, you will instead have a perfect winter main course. In short, comfort food.

If you choose to serve your beans with sausages, you’ll want freshly made mild Italian sausages, or perhaps a mixture of mild and other kinds (e.g. garlic or red pepper). The important thing is that the sausages not be so strong they overpower the beans. Depending upon the size of the sausages and the appetites of your diners, figure two or more sausages per person.

  • 1 pound (500 g) dried canellini (white beans), soaked for 3 hours
  • 1/4 cup (50 ml) olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, crushed
  • 7-8 leaves of fresh sage
  • 1-2 peeled fresh plum tomatoes or a small can of tomatoes
  • Boiling water
  • Salt and pepper to taste
  • 8 Italian link sausages (optional)

Begin by boiling the beans until 3/4 done in lightly salted water. This will take about an hour, though you should begin checking them after a half hour. You don’t want them to go soft on you.

If you are including sausages, prick their skins lightly with a fork and simmer them in boiling water to cover for 15 minutes to render out some of the fat. Drain them and keep them warm.

Once the beans are 3/4 done, heat the olive oil over a medium flame in a heavy bottomed clay pot or dutch oven. When the oil’s hot, add the garlic and the sage (not more than seven or eight leaves – too much sage will make the beans bitter). Cook until the sage crackles and the garlic is lightly browned. Add the tomatoes and cook for a few more minutes, then add the beans and bean broth to cover. Season the beans with salt and pepper, add the sausages, and simmer everything until the beans are quite soft, stirring occasionally to keep the beans from sticking to the bottom of the pan and adding bean broth as necessary to keep the pot from drying out.

Serves four, and you will want a tossed green salad and crusty bread to go with it. The wine? A light, zesty Chianti d’Annata od Chianti Classico D’Annata, the vintage wine.

Cassata alla Siciliana

Cassata, Prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu

Cassata, Prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu

Cassata is one of the most classic Sicilian cakes, and also one of the oldest: Though you will find people suggesting it dates to Sicily’s Arab period because of the candied fruit that serves as both decoration and ingredient in the ricotta cream, the word Cassata derives from the Latin Caseus, which means cheese. In other words, Cassata is a cheesecake, one of the world’s first.

Given its age it comes as no surprise that there are a great many variations throughout Sicily. This recipe is trapanese, from Trapani, while the pictures, which will I hope inspire you, are of a cassata some friends brought to our house, a cassata prepared by the Ristorante Albergo Moderno in Erice, and one prepared by the Scoglio Ubriaco in Cefalu.

You’ll need:

  • 1 1/3 cups (280 g) sugar
  • 1 1/2 cups (150 g) flour
  • 1 teaspoon baking powder
  • Half a lemon
  • 6 eggs
  • 2 egg whites
  • Marsala
  • 1 1/8 pounds (500 g) fresh sheep’s milk ricotta (you can use cow if you must)
  • A pinch of vanillin, or 1/4 teaspoon vanilla extract
  • 2 ounces (50 g) finely diced zuccata, which is candied melon peel
  • 2 ounces (50 g) bitter chocolate, in shavings
  • 9 ounces (250 g) blanched peeled almonds
  • 3 drops of bitter almond extract
  • 5 cups (500 g) powdered sugar
  • A pinch of salt
  • Potato starch (you may find this in the Jewish section of your market)
  • Green (or the color you prefer) food coloring
  • Butter and flour for the cake pan
  • Strips of zuccata and assorted candied fruit
A Cassata Alla Siciliana

A Cassata Alla Siciliana

Preheat your oven to 360 F (180 C).

Whip 6 egg white to firm peaks with a pinch of salt.

In another bowl, beat 6 yolks with 3/4 cup of the granular sugar, until the mixture is frothy and pale yellow.

Sift the flour with the baking powder and slowly add it to the beaten yolks, together with a couple of tablespoons of egg white and the grated zest of the lemon; finally, gently fold the beaten egg whites into the mixture. Turn the batter into a buttered and floured 9-inch (22 cm) square pan and bake it for a half hour; remove the cake from the oven and let it cool before removing it from the pan.

In the meantime, grind the almonds in a food processor, using short bursts to keep them from liquefying and giving off their oil.

Add 2 1/2 cups of powdered sugar and the bitter almond essence diluted in 1/4 cup water, and blend until the mixture is homogenous.

Dust your work surface with potato starch before turning the paste out onto it (you can also turn it out onto a sheet of wax paper), and incorporate a few drops of green (or whatever color you prefer) dye, diluted in a few drops of water. Work the paste until the color is uniform and then wrap the paste in plastic wrap and chill it in the refrigerator.

Put the ricotta through a fairly fine wire mesh strainer and combine it with 1/2 cup granulated sugar, the vanillin, the chocolate, and the diced zuccata.

Cassata, Perpared by the Hotel Moderno in Erice

Cassata, Perpared by the Hotel Moderno in Erice

Next, roll the almond paste out 1/4 inch (1/2 cm) thick; the sheet should be large enough to line a 10-inch (25 cm) round pudding mold.

Before doings so, line the mold with plastic wrap, and then lay the sheet of almond paste into it.

Next, slice the cake into half-inch (about a cm) horizontal sheets and use them to line the bottom and sides of the mold, making a box of sorts.

Make a syrup by diluting some Marsala with a little water and a little sugar, and sprinkle it over the cake. Fill the box with the creamy ricotta mixture and cover it with more of the cake, sprinkling again with the Marsala syrup.

Lay a dish over the cassata, press down gently, and chill the cassata for several hours in the refrigerator.

It is now time to decorate the cassata: turn it over onto a serving dish and remove the mold and the plastic wrap. Beat the remaining two whites and sift the remaining powdered sugar into them, beating all the while to obtain a thick, homogenous cream. Add 2 tablespoons of lemon juice to the glaze and spread it over the cassata. Let the glaze set for a few minutes, decorate the cassata with the remaining candied fruit, and chill it for several more hours before serving it.


Almost Wordless Wednesday: What you See and What You Don’t

La Pieve di Santo Stefano

La Pieve di Santo Stefano

The Val di Luni, the crescent-shaped valley that extends inland from the mouth of the Magra River along the Tosco-Ligurian border almost to Emilia, boasts a great number of medieval castles and Romanesque churches, and if you drive through the area on a nice summer day you’re certain to find shutterbugs clicking away.

The 11th century Pieve di Santo Stefano in Sorano is one of the most popular subjects, the apse especially, and it often appears in promotional materials prepared by the local tourist board. Always cropped to include the outer wall, or starting mid-way up the apse, and to be honest I never thought about why it was cropped this way until I stopped myself one day, got out of the car, and took the shot above.

Santo Stefano: What's Behind the Wall

Santo Stefano: What’s Behind the Wall

Then I walked in and discovered the church, which is an old, old, parish church, is surrounded by the graves, some old and some quite recent, of the parishioners. This is something the tourist board might not want to announce, but if you enjoy wandering about graveyards looking at the headstones (and I do) it makes the church seem much more immediate.