Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Bright Yellow on a Grey Day

Today is chilly and while not forboding, not very cheerful. It would be a good day to see some blue, but bright yellow would work, too. Like sunflowers. A great big pot full of them. I like great big ones with thick stems. Or, because it is easier for me, how about a nice big pot of soft, cushy, unctuous, hot and steamy polenta? Yeah, I know. This is not your typical Sicilian dish, but as Ma used to say "Some day Italy will be unified and we will be as one. But for now let's take all the good things from any Region and as long as can eat them, tht will do just fine". Polenta is the one of the mainstays of Northern cooking in Lombardy, and the Veneto area. When Ma wanted to make an "international" meal she would make polenta, then we would have some wine from Piedmont. There - you have a travelogue. We felt very worldly.

Yes. That's it. It's yellow. I put 2 quarts of water into the top of a bain marie. Any kind of makeshift double boiler works, too. Then I filled the bottom part high enough to eventually touch the bottom of the top part of the boiler. Both are set on high fires to bring to a boil. I add 1 tablespoon of Sicilian sea-salt to my 2 quarts of water and drizzle in 2 cups of polenta - not cornmeal like you make for Thanksgiving cornbread. That's good but not like what I am making. Then, with a special spoon for stirring polenta (wouldn't you know I designed one and had it hand made), I stir in one direction only until the polenta begins to thicken and suspends in the gently boiling water. The spoon has a round hole in the middle of it so that when you streak and stir through the hot polenta there is not so much resistance. It makes life easy. But life is easy with my method of cooking polenta - you'll see.

Now that the polenta is a little thick, and nicely suspended, I put it on top of the boiling water in the bottom part of the double boiler, add a lid, and then lower the fire so that the water in the bottom boils but not violently. Now the polenta will cook all by itself for an hour-and-a-half, stirring a couple of times. This is my idea of easy kitchen work. I can eat the polenta hot (I'll tell you how I'm going to eat mine in a little while - I havn't yet figured out what I want), and, when I have eaten all I can possibly hold I will spoon and smooth out the remainder in a shallow sheet pan and cool it. Later, in some other meal I will grill it, or bake it, or even make a kind of pasticcio with it, layered with tomato sauce, cheese, and plenty of basil. Another way is to make shapes with a cookie cutter, Polenta Nests with Gorgonzola and pine nuts and scoop out the center a little and fill with Gorgonzola or other cheese you like, or sauteed mushrooms, drzzle with a little extra virgin olive oil I like Nocellino from Sicily), and bake them until they are bubbly hot. What a treat that is.

When I first came up with idea of cooking polenta like a just told you, I had a huge meal to prepare for friends and I was going nuts. I couldn't stand and stir, the accepted method for cooking polenta, so, here came Mother Polenta with her own solutions and off I went. Since this epiphany many, many years ago, my method has been included in some of the most popular and respected cookbooks, and I have even been credited with the method - Imagine That!

What makes me feel really good about making polenta this way is that the dish itself is completely preserved as authentic, but most of all, delicious. Anybody of the old-world folks would eat the polenta in a wink and declare it tasty and excellent. Joy be to me!

Oh. The soft polenta; it's done now and I have dolloped a big spoonful on a hot plate, showered it with fresh ground black pepper, a few spoons of tomato chunks sauteed with garlic, and a few leaves of basil, some extra virgin olive oil, and now I am happy surrounded by yellow inside and out, and feeling full and satisfied. Dont' think I ate the whole thing! This recipe serves 10 or 12 people (actually less if they like to eat and you have, thanks to me, become a great cook).

See you in the kitchen in a while.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Making Bread

It seems unbelievable that folks are actually baking! Imagine. A one-hundred-thousand dollar kitchen and what to do? Kitchens are tools, just like dad's old shed with the iron pry bars hung on the wall, the screwdrivers, the hammer, the pliers - you know what I mean. Unlike so many of today's monied folk, though, dad probably actually used the tools. Well, the kitchen is the tool rack and it holds the latest stove, the space-age refrigerator, and of course, the granite countertop. So let's make dad happy. Now let's use it, OK? How about baking bread?

Even though a lot of people like bread baking machines, I don't. If I had a choice of no fresh-baked bread because I did not want to use my oven or use a bread making machine, then of course, I would do so. But making bread essentially by hand is my idea of deep satisfaction; craft at work.

Since bread is as old as time (and I'm getting there too, but not for a while yet), I will have snippets of thoughts, advice, and lore about bread baking. Knowing myself as I do it will also include the eating of bread in its many variations - lots of it.

Below is a the bread I made for a dinner on Augst 8, 2006 we called "Emerging Stars" "Stelle Sorgente" with fabulous wines from the North of Italy coming forth from grade A wine makers who are not yet household names but they will be. People loved the crunchy exterior and cracker-like interior. The aroma and taste of extra virgin olive oil was pronounced - I know this area is the land of lard and butter, but they are not dummies those Ferrarese and Bolognese, they know delicious things are also called good olive oil. I do believe I am the only person in the U.S. who makes this bread. Who would be dumb enough to do this much work on a truly rare bread but me?

Making the bread is not so much hard as it is fastidious, and here is where skill and experience really comes in (think of playing those scales on the piano endlessly but when you need to tickle the ivories - there you have it). The bread is supposed to honor the creatures in the sea, but Ferrara nd Bologna are hardly sea-coast towns. It does not matter. This bread is delicous and I am glad I broke my back to make it. Now if I could only figure out how make hundreds of them, and had a wood oven, and had a way to sell them all....

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