Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Pour On The Polenta!

One of the Christmas-time traditions we have came to look forward to is the polentone, or big polenta feast.  Each year on Santo Stefano, the day after Christmas, our friend Giorgio would simmer up some sauce, stir up a pot of polenta, and serve it up on a big board, crowned with plump sausages.  The board pulled double duty as serving tray and dinner plate, as everyone was provided with only a fork and told to go to town on the section in front of them.  He cleverly put the meat and mushrooms in the middle of the polenta, so you had to "fare una strada" (make a road) through the polenta to reach the rich stuff.

It's a fun tradition and a great meal concept that really encourages joviality and interaction.  Giorgio has two enormous wooden boards that he uses for his polentone.  We couldn't find anything suitable for our US version, so we went to a restaurant supply store and purchased two industrial-sized baking sheets for our festa, which worked very well.

This method of serving polenta originates from Abruzzo, where its toppings vary depending on province.  Some places serve it with sausages, other traditions use porcini mushrooms, while some prefer lamb pieces.  It is always generously dusted with roughly-grated aged pecorino cheese.

For the Sauce:

3 cloves garlic, minced
1 onion, minced
2/3 cup dry red wine
1 28-oz. can crushed tomatoes or tomato puree
Fresh sausage (spicy or mild) - enough for the number of guests
1/2 cup mushroom broth (soak dried mushrooms in 1/2 cup of hot water for 1/2 hour; or use a mushroom broth boullion cube), or rich vegetable stock

Saute onion and garlic in olive oil until soft but not brown. Add the wine and allow to partially evaporate, then add the tomatoes and a little salt and pepper. Cut the sausages in half if they are long, poke each with a fork, and drop into the sauce*. Add the mushroom broth, cover and let simmer about 1 hour. Uncover and let simmer another 1/2 hour.

*I put the sausage in for about 10 minutes, then remove all but three or four pieces, so the sauce doesn't become too fatty, while leaving a few pieces in to flavor it nicely. Put the removed sausages into a big saucepan, add a bit of the tomato sauce along with some more red wine, cover and simmer about 1/2 hour. With a big crowd I put them into a baking pan, add some sauce and wine, cover them and put them in a 250` oven to cook, so they're off the stove until I'm ready to serve them.

For the Polenta:

You can prepare traditional, long-cooking polenta for an authentic taste, or the quicker-cooking variety.  Since the "real" polenta involves 45 minutes of constant stirring, I follow Giorgio's method of using the faster version; not the "minute polenta" which he says has no texture to it, but the variety that requires about five minutes of cooking.  An Italian polenta meal works best.  It comes in vacuum-packed bricks and is found in import stores.  For ten people I used 1 1/2 packages of polenta, albeit a few of the guests were light eaters.

Follow the cooking directions on the package, bringing salted water to a boil in a very large pot, then lower the heat and sprinkle the polenta grains in slowly, while stirring with a heavy wooden spoon. 

Pour It On!

When it is thickened but still soft and pourable, turn it out onto the sheets, smoothing it out with a wooden paddle or spoon.  You may have to add a little hot water first to get it to a pourable consistency.

Bring the pot of sauce to the table and ladle it out evenly over the polenta.  Sprinkle generously with grated pecorino cheese.  Top with sausages (or cooked mushrooms, if you prefer).  Dig in and enjoy!

Monday, December 14, 2009

Pesce al Forno

As Christmas approaches I'm reminded that Italy celebrates la Vigilia (or Christmas Eve) with fish.  While the "feast of the seven fishes" has become almost fabled, the reality is that most households do eat fish, but not necessarily seven plates of it.  Our own experience of the past three Christmases spent with Roman friends brought four to five fish dishes to the table each year.  There is usually one or two seafood-based antipasti, followed by a pasta with salmon or shrimp, and then the obligatory pesce fritto, fried small white fish that everyone devours while complaining about the grease and fat, being careful to leave no speck of breading on the plate.  The highlight is always the pesce al forno, baked or roasted fish that is meaty with a delicate flavor.

You can use any whole fish - bass, redfish, snapper, bream, or perch.  Obviously the herbs can be varied to taste, substituting fresh dill or the rosemary or thyme.  Roasting whole fish on the bone gives it a wonderful flavor and moistness you don't get with fillets.

Whole fish - cleaned and gutted
1 lemon, sliced
1 garlic clove, sliced
fresh herbs - rosemary, thyme, oregano, parsley, or dill
olive oil
white wine

Rinse and dry the fish, then rub it with olive oil.  Sprinkle it generously all over with salt.

In a roasting pan or baking pan lay some sprigs of rosemary or thyme, then lay thin slices of lemon on top.  Put the fish on the "bedding".  Put slices of lemon, sprigs of thyme and slices of garlic inside the cavity of the fish.  Lay more lemon slices on top.  Drizzle with a little bit of white wine (about 1/3 cup).

Bake at 400 F. for about 1/2 hour.  Fish is done when the eyes turn white and the flesh flakes with a fork.  A good rule of thumb for cooking fish is ten minutes per inch of thickness.

Related Link:

How to Eat Fish on the Bone

Italyville's Feast of the Seven Fishes Roundup

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Torta di Mele

I admit that I don't have a rabid sweet tooth.  I *do* like chocolate as much as the next girl and was happy to hear there are medicinal properties to it, but I try to avoid blatant binges.  I don't generally order dessert when dining out because they are just too big, fat-filled, and achingly sweet for me.  When I do go for a dolce, I prefer it to be fruit-based.  I also prefer to make my own so that I can control the type and amount of sugar.

This torta di mele, or apple cake, fits the bill perfectly for me.  Wholesome apples and whole grains combine to make a delicious cake that is nice enough to serve as dessert for guests but also makes a healthy breakfast.  It is naturally conducive to a scoop of vanilla ice cream on top, though I've enjoyed it with a bit of honey-sweetened ricotta, too.

Torta di Mele

1 cup whole grain pancake and waffle mix (I use Bob's Red Mill 10 Grain Pancake Mix)
2 eggs
1/2 cup milk
2/3 cup  sugar (I use Sucanat, a "whole" sugar, but maple syrup can be used, too)
2-3 apples, peeled and chopped
1/2 cup chopped pecans or walnuts

Oven: 325 F.
Grease a 9" pie plate.

Beat the eggs until foamy, add the milk, then stir in the sugar.  Add the baking mix and stir until combined; the batter will be stiff.  Fold in the apples and nuts.  Spread the batter into the pie plate.

Bake for 50 minutes, until golden brown and set.  Best when served warm.  It naturally begs for a scoop of vanilla ice cream, but I've also enjoyed it with a dollop of honey-sweetened ricotta on top.