Wednesday, April 24, 2013

Polenta: The Day After

If you are like me, you always make far too much polenta.  The bag of polenta meal seems so small, and it can't possibly be enough to feed everyone, right? Ok, I'll add just a little bit more.


That little bag of polenta can feed 10 people.  Which means I still have enough polenta for an army after we are all stuffed silly.  But this isn't as tragic as it sounds because polenta is just as good, if not better, the next day!  Before the polenta cools off completely, smush it in some tupperware and stick it in the refrigerator.

The next morning, dump out your polenta and it should have solidified and hardened enough so that it has no problem staying together.  This is going to make an extraordinary breakfast! 
White Ostenga polenta left over from last night.

Slice it up.....

Coat a hot cast iron pan with some olive oil (or butter if you want to be very American),  and fry those slices of polenta until they are a golden brown.  It is easier to flip them if you cut them into pieces no more than 2 inches long.  Flip the polenta slices until crispy and golden on the other side.

Now, you have some choices.  You can eat your crispy polenta as-is, you can drizzle some honey (or maple syrup for an Americanized version), or if you want to be like an Italian,  eat it with jam.

I was really, really skeptical about the jam thing. Polenta and jam? No way, I thought.  But. BUT. I was wrong, I was so very very wrong.   Today I opened up my jar of jam made by the one and only Christine Ferber (apple, orange, and cardamom), and after eating a bite of the sweet, tart and slightly spicy jam on top of the crispy and flavorful polenta slices, I was floored, flabbergasted.  I don't know if it was the white ostenga polenta, the jam, or some magic of the combination, but that is what it was....magic.

Even thinking about it now, I'm drooling uncontrollably.  I've found my new favorite dish! 

Sunday, April 21, 2013

Polenta Ostenga con Gamberetti... Italian Shrimp & Grits!

I wrote my last post, declaring my love affair with spring, a mite too soon.  Yesterday I woke up to a snow storm.  Needless to say, it made me quite disgruntled.
My poor, chilly garden

In need of something to warm ourselves up from the unexpected winter blast, we held an impromptu polenta party last night.   There is nothing more 'warming' than standing and stirring over a boiling pot of polenta for an hour!  The good company and flowing wine doesn't hurt, either.
Polenta brings everyone to the table!
I was desperate to try some of my new 'rainbow' polenta, semi-locally grown (about an hour's drive from us) from ancient heirloom varieties of corn and stone ground in a local mill.  I was almost hesitant to cook up this polenta, because it is so beautiful, but then I remembered that I can always get some more. We made two different varieties of polenta, and three different toppings.  The first, meant as an appetizer, was polenta ostenga con gamberetti (white polenta with baby shrimp), and our main course was polenta morado viola con salsiccia e funghi porcini (purple morado polenta with Italian sausage and porcini mushrooms).
My hoard of many colored polenta
Today I'll show you how to make the white polenta with baby shrimp.  Folks, this is shrimp & grits!  Granted, I'm a vegetarian so I've never eaten shrimp & grits, but being an American from the south, I can appreciate them from afar.  And discovering that Italy has a nearly identical traditional dish is just really exciting for a foodie, even a vegetarian one. This is a traditional dish from the Northeastern Italian region of Venezia, and there it is made using schie, which is a very small and grey colored fresh water shrimp.  We can't easily get those where we live, so we got gamberetti, which are very small red shrimp.

I used white ostenga polenta, which comes from an heirloom variety of corn, and it is more finely ground than the coarser polenta we usually see around our parts.  If you can't get this, or white polenta, stone ground white cornmeal (finely ground) should work well.  This is also really interesting because this polenta is prepared so that it is much more liquid than normal polenta, and it is basically grits.  In fact when I tasted it last night, I lept into the air and started hollering about grits, I was so excited.   Finding local grits is quite a thrill for a displaced American girl!

For 4  portions:
300 g (10.5 oz) finely ground white polenta or cornmeal
1.5 (~1.6 quarts) liters of water *Ratio: 5 parts water for 1 part polenta
1 T coarse salt
1 kg (~ 2 pounds) baby shrimp
3 cloves of garlic, finely minced
2 T olive oil
splash of white wine
salt and pepper to taste
2  handfuls of minced parsley

Boil your water and salt, and slowly whisk in the polenta.  Whisk until it starts to thicken, and then lower the heat to medium-low and switch to a wooden spoon.  Give it a good few stirs every couple of minutes (or constantly if you are able), and cook it like this for an hour.  For detailed polenta making instructions go HERE, remembering that this polenta recipe needs more water than the usual amount.

When the polenta is nearly ready, start on the shrimp.  If you have fresh shrimp, boil and clean them.  If they are frozen, briefly boil and strain them.  Heat up your olive oil in a pan and add garlic.  When it becomes fragrant, dump in the shrimp, add a few glugs of white wine.  Over medium flame, cook for a few (maybe 4)  minutes until the wine mostly dries up.  Season to taste with salt & pepper, and mix in parsley.

When it looks like this, it is ready to eat.

Serve over the white polenta, drizzle with some mild extra virgin olive oil (preferably from Liguria or Lago di Guarda) and drink with a white wine that goes well with fish, like Vermentino.

Wines from places that eat a lot of fish tend to go well with fish!

polenta bianca con gamberetti
Stay tuned for more polenta recipes!  I do think I could happily eat polenta, and write about it,  every day for the rest of my life.

Friday, April 19, 2013

Spring in the Alps and a Tasty Springtime Snack!

Oh, I love spring!  Winter in the Alps is hard, long, and cold.  This week winter has officially come to an end.  Yes, I know that for the rest of the northern hemisphere it ended nearly a month ago, but in my neck of the woods official dates regarding seasons don't mean much.  This week the birds started chirping, my fruit trees started blooming, the first daffodil bloomed and I planted the first seeds in my garden.  I got to wear a sundress, even!  Granted, I wore it with a jacket, but it still made me happy.
The view from my house.  The grass is green and the snow is far away!
Spring also lures me out of my culinary hibernation and makes me appreciate food more.  It means that I can go scavaging for wild greens, and eat fresh goat cheese again because the baby goats have just all been born.  This year's white wines from local vineyards are nearly ready, and the snow line on the Alps that surround my house is gradually creeping up towards higher elevations. 

This week I have been gathering wild baby cicoria for my salad greens, and picking baby nettles for nettle pesto.  I made some lovely gluten free bread, and went on a mini fresh-ish cheese shopping spree.  I really love to go to the supermarket, and randomly buy whatever cheeses that are on sale that I've never heard of before.  It is kind of like a game.  I've tried all the local cheeses, so now I'm having to branch out into other Italian cheesey specialities!

Sitting here, writing this, I'm eating the most exquisite snack.   This week's cheese haul ( pecorino perla nero argiolas, caciotta al pistacchio and provolone piccante), gluten free bruschetta with scavenged nettle pesto, and jams made by some local jam geniuses ( apple, green tomato and vanilla, and thyme apple jelly.... two of my favorites, and absolutely amazing with mild cheeses).

Oh, and some white wine, Vernaccia di San Gimignano, which is about as good as a 3 euro bottle of wine gets.  Because you can't have a proper late afternoon snack in Italy without something to wash it down. 

The provolone piccante was my favorite, and I've eaten nearly the whole wedge so far.  It is a very sharp provolone, I love it!  And I've eaten nearly my entire jar of apple, green tomato and vanilla jam with this week's cheeses.  Living in Italy may have its drawbacks, but you can't beat it for food.  As the Italians say, "Se mangia bene!"

Monday, April 15, 2013

A Polenta Rainbow

Last weekend was my time to shine as an American in Italy.  On Friday, I played fiddle in a blues concert  dedicated to Mississippi John Hurt-particularly strange given that I'm not a blues musician- ,
on Sunday I taught an American pie making class to a bunch of Italians (they loved it), and then my husband and I played an old-time music concert.  Torino apparently loves vintage and retro Americana.  And pie.  Because who doesn't love a good pie?
A lemon cake pie my students made
Between the pie class and the concert, my husband and I went for a stroll around downtown Torino.  We stumbled across the Sunday farmer's market, which is spectacular, and I stuffed myself with goats cheese and local hazelnuts.  While that is pretty awesome by any standard, I then came across a jackpot:  heirloom polenta.  A rainbow of polenta.  Six different colors!  
 I consider myself a bit of a polenta junky.  My bandmates like to joke that even though I am American, I make polenta like a Valdostana, because I take my polenta so seriously (see my other polenta post!).  Up until now, I've really only tasted/seen/cooked polenta from Valle d'Aosta... it is coarse, yellow, and usually smothered in Fontina.   However, I am discovering that there is a whole world of  polenta.  Each region has their own varieties of corn, that corn is ground to different consistencies, there are different cheeses that they mix with it to make it concia,  top it with different meats, and cook it using different methods. 
'Polenta Guy' with his rainbow of locally grown, stone ground heirloom polenta
The polenta I found at the market has me incredibly excited.  They are all heirloom ancient varieties of corn... there used to be dozens of different types of corn used for polenta, but in the past century nearly all of them have been lost.  In recent years they managed to somehow recover and preserve six of these old varieties, and now people are starting to eat them again.  This is some seriously beautiful polenta.
A polenta rainbow!  Ostenga, Nostrano dell'Isola, Pignoletto Rosso, Morado Viola, Morado Nera
As close to pure white as polenta can be, this is a special variety mostly eaten in the NE of Italy with small shrimp.  Who know Italy had their own version of shrimp & grits?

A bright yellow polenta that is best eaten with a mix of sauteed mushrooms (especially porcini!)

PURPLE polenta.  Well, the corn is purple, and when they mill it, you can see that the husk is a lovely purple color.  This is a mild tasting polenta that is good for just about everything, though the polenta guy recommended delicate tasting meat.
I've actually eaten this one before; it is more finely milled than polenta from Valle d'Aosta, and it has a strong, slightly bitter taste.  The polenta guy recommended topping it with 'salvagino', which is any sort of wild game like boar, wild goat, or deer.  Like the purple polenta, the corn is red, but when it is milled only the husk is colored.
This is a Piemontese variation on my favorite type of polenta: Polenta Taragna, which is traditionally eaten in Lombardia, but enjoyed everywhere.  This one is 60% pignoletto rosso polenta, and 40% buckwheat.  It is best eaten concia (mixed with cheese)
I'm the most excited about this one.... black polenta!  It looks just like fireplace ash.  The polenta guy said it is good topped with meat or fish, but a more 'special' way to prepare it is to spread it in a pan after cooking and let it cool.  Cut it into squares, and broil it in the oven for a few minutes topped with gorgonzola or stracchino cheeses.  Let cool and serve as an aperitivo.

Isn't the black polenta gorgeous?  I'm in love.

For a 'crash course' on how to make polenta, see this post.  I'm sure I will be back with updates as soon as I have a polenta party to test out these beautiful polenta varieties!

Thursday, April 4, 2013

A Polenta Gathering

Polenta, I love you. Yes, I know that I declare my undying love for every food I write about.  It is because there is so  much great food in the world. But polenta holds a special place in my heart (and stomach).

Before I moved here, I thought polenta was the stuff that came in tubes in American grocery stores, flavored with things like sun dried tomatoes and sage.  I now shudder at the blasphemous gook posing as the food I have come to love in my time living in the Italian Alps.

Polenta, real polenta, is great for so many reasons.  It's easy and just about impossible to screw up, it's relatively healthy, it's cheap, it's gluten free (a blessing for me, since I discovered that I am gluten intolerant).  There are about 100 ways to prepare it, and it just tastes so damned good.  But above all, it brings people together. You can't really prepare polenta for one.  Or even two.  Heck, even polenta for only four people doesn't make much sense.  Polenta is best made in a big pot, stirred by a big wooden spoon, and served to an overcrowded table of your family and best friends.  It is a food that brings people together, that creates community. 

I love polenta, but evermore so, I love how to brings a community to share a table. 

If you are reading this from the US, I don't really know where you can get polenta meal.  Stone ground yellow cornmeal probably works, but you'll have to do your own research regarding what you have where you live.  My favorite kind of polenta is polenta taragna, which is about 70% polenta meal and 30% coarsely ground buckwheat. 

Polenta Taragna (polenta with buckwheat)

Making polenta is easy.  Basically you want 4 parts water for 1 part polenta, (though some call for 3 parts water for 1 part polenta) and about 100 g polenta meal per person. Cook on a stovetop if you must, but it's tastier when cooked over an open fire.

Ingredients for 5 servings:
500 g stone ground polenta (little bit over a pound)
2 liters of water (little over 2 quarts)
spoonful of coarse salt

Using a big pot, salt your water and bring to a boil.  When it reaches a boil, slowly drizzle in your polenta, whisking all the while.  Using a whisk is important so that the polenta doesn't clump up.  It'll be liquidly and suddenly it will turn quite thick.  Keeping your polenta on medium flame, switch to a big wooden spoon or a big stick and start stirring.  You'll want to stir pretty much constantly for about an hour.  This is why it is great to do this at a party, because people can take turns stirring. 

A note on stirring: There is a particular way to stir polenta.  I think it would be more accurate to call it a 'turn' rather than a 'stir', actually. To make a turn, I start at '9 o'clock' in the pot, and stir clockwise all the way around the edge, and when I get back to where I started I fold the polenta into itself.  Sounds complicated, but it's not.  Here is a video of how to stir polenta:
The polenta is going to get really really thick. There might be some crust forming around the edge of the pot, and that's actually a good sign.  Keep stirring.  When an hour has passed, it's done.  At this point you have some choices.  You can make your polenta 'grassa'  by stirring in A LOT of butter at the end. Like maybe 125 g for this amount of polenta.  Or you could make 'polenta concia'   which is how we usually eat polenta in Valle d'Aosta.  This is when you stir in chopped up Fontina cheese at the end (about 250g/half a pound for this recipe), along with some butter.  Real polenta concia is then baked in the oven in individual terracotta dishes until it is brown and bubbly, but most people at home skip this step.  You can also skip the butter and cheese if you like, and skip straight to the toppings.  Some tasty toppings include whole milk, sauteed mushrooms, salsiccia (Italian sausage), fonduta (cheese sauce), or with beans. 

Fontina from my neighbor's raw milk vending machine

Polenta on a wooden platter ready to be served. See how thick it is?

I love eating the polenta crust left in the pot after dumping the polenta out!

Eat accompanied by simple and strong red wine.  If you have leftover polenta, you can slice it and pan fry it in some butter for breakfast.  I recommend drizzling the golden brown crispy breakfast polenta with maple syrup. Definitely an American twist on an Italian tradition, but it is seriously delicious.

In my next posts, I will write about polenta toppings.... there are so many delicious options!