IN THE KITCHEN: Yet another 'trionfo' for the Polenta
Photos by Faith Bahadurian
The annual Polenta Festa at Dorothea's House in Princeton took place recently and, as always, attracted a congenial crowd. This is a warm community event that reassures us that, at least for now, all is right in our little corner of the world.
Polenta Festa is a potluck, but if you don't feel like cooking (or baking), a bottle of wine will suffice. Somehow it all works out, and there is plenty to go around, so you can have a taste of many, many polenta dishes as you visit with old friends and make some new ones. We also enjoyed the music of Cajun Spice after our feast.
Dorothea's House trustee Linda Prospero arranged for me to talk to a few of the attendees the week before about what they were planning to make, and I had several nice conversations as a result.
First I reached Titti Prina, who did not yet know what she would make. But she briefly reminisced about her family in Genoa and noted that her mother had many cookbooks, which she now owned. And what did she end up bringing that night? Two dishes - a savory polenta with mushrooms and tomato sauce, and sweet cornmeal fritelli (think fried donuts) with raisins, which were heavenly, but so much trouble that Ms. Prina vows never to make them again.
Next I spoke to Anna Rosa Kohn, who was already on the way to finishing her dish. She had stopped at the Great Wall Supermarket in Franklin Park earlier that week. There she picked out a variety of Asian mushrooms. She also found - and swore me to secrecy until after the event - ducks's feet, which, like chicken feet, make a rich stock with good body. She also used onion, carrots, and celery in her stock, with peas and pine nuts.
Then she cooked a cup of polenta with four cups of water overnight in the oven at low heat, and tossed that with cheese and butter. She spread it out in half-inch layers separated by waxed paper, so that when it was time to layer the polenta with the mushroom sauce and bake it, the layers came apart easily. The finished dish was rich and delicious.
Alessandra Mazzucato is another trustee, from whom my mother and I used to take Italian lessons. She was bringing her polenta with porcini mushroom sauce (no tomatoes), a perennial favorite at the Festa. She pours prepared polenta into a pan and once it's chilled, she cuts it into two layers. Then she cuts the layers into "lozenges" or diamonds. She makes 3 layers of polenta layered with the mushrooms and Montasio cheese. With each new layer she sets the lozenges at a different angle, so the sauce will seep between the staggered layers.
A few more of the more than 30 dishes on offer that night:
Joe Casalaina always brings a crockpot of stewed lentils plus homemade Cotechino (pork sausage), which traditionally guarantee abundance and prosperity in the new year. There was also polenta with sausage and Asiago and Romano cheeses, polenta with red and white sauces, and crispy polenta with apples, raisins and rosemary. Add to that two kinds of polenta cake with almonds, and a few salads, including Vicky Moy's refreshing fruit salad with cubes of almond gelatin.
When polenta first made its way to restaurant menus, my mother, with her Northern Italian heritage, was quite amused to see what was once subsidence food for the poor elevated to fancy-food status. Linda Prospero noted that when corn made its way to the Old World, the Italians, unlike the natives of the New World, did not know they should combine it with lime, ash or other mineral salts to release the niacin in the corn. As a result, for centuries, many poor Northern Italians, whose diet consisted largely of cornmeal, suffered from niacin deficiency, an affliction we now call pellagra, a word that derives from "pelle agra," Italian for "sour skin."
Here is the dish I made for Polenta Festa, and I am proud to say it disappeared "molto rapidamente."
POLENTA WITH RAPE (Broccoli rabe)
liberally adapted from
"Pleasures of the Good Earth,"
Edward Giobbi, Knopf, 1991
Note: I also added a few golden raisins to the cooked rape, before combining with the polenta. Also, while Mr. Giobbi (and most others) directs cooks to boil the water before adding the cornmeal, I prefer to add my cornmeal very gradually as the water is brought to the boil, stirring constantly. I also sprinkle about 2 tablespoons grated Parmigiano Reggiano on top before serving.
12 cups roughly chopped rape (1 big bunch will be sufficient, trim
off largest stems)
Hot pepper flakes to taste
2 tablespoons olive oil plus extra for sprinkling
1 cup fine cornmeal
4 cups water
2 tablespoons kosher salt (or to taste)
Freshly ground black pepper
Cook the chopped rape in salted, boiling water for about 4 minutes. Drain and mix with the garlic, hot pepper and the 2 tablespoons olive oil. Sauté over medium heat for 5 minutes and set aside.
Cook the polenta, seasoning with salt to taste; fine cornmeal takes only around 8-10 minutes once it gets bubbling. It should be quite loose, because, as Mr. Giobbi tells us, this dish should have a quiche-like texture when finished.
As soon as polenta is cooked, fold in the rape. Pour the mixture into a 10-inch pie plate, sprinkle with olive oil and black pepper, and broil until top is lightly charred.
For upcoming Dorothea's House programs, visit www.dorotheashouse.org. On May 4, "In The Kitchen" columnists Pat Tanner and Faith Bahadurian will be presenting a program on Slow Food.