My family tells me I’m mostly Irish, and if that’s true, then I must have lived a former life in an Italian village. Italian food, olive oils, cheeses, and wines speak to me like no others. It was a delight to read the new book from Colman Andrews, The Country Cooking of Italy, of which I received a review copy. Of course, it’s a terrific book having been written by Colman Andrews with photographs by Christopher Hirsheimer and Melissa Hamilton. It is true to its title in that the recipes aren’t necessarily all the most obvious Italian dishes; although, there are several well-known favorites. Instead, it’s a collection of food found outside the main cities. It covers dishes found in every corner of the country including Sicily and Sardinia. There are a few dishes in the book that I know well and make frequently like Broccoli Rabe with Olive Oil and Sea Salt and Spaghetti al Pesto Trapanese. But, there are also some less well-known dishes like Spaghetti alla Callabrese made with ginger and mint, Scapece di Vasto which is like an escabeche of swordfish from the town of Vasto on the Adriatic coast, and a Sardinian Flatbread “Lasagna” made with pane carasau topped with poached eggs. There are soups for all seasons, antipasto, fresh and dried pasta dishes, flatbreads and tortas, poultry, meats, game, offal, salads and vegetables, and desserts. All of the recipes are woven together with stories about ingredients and their origin or arrival in Italy, various food festivals, tidbits about several of Andrews’ visits to different areas of the country, other writers’ observations on traveling in Italy, and more.
From the Salads and Vegetables chapter, I was reminded of the great combination of fennel, orange, and onion, and I made that salad right away while blood oranges are still in season. A couple of pages later, I learned that black-eyed peas had been popular in Italy for at least a hundred years before they were grown in the southern US, and in Italian, they’re called fagioli con l’occhio. In Tuscany, they’re served simply dressed with olive oil. Next, I jumped to the Desserts and Confections chapter and tried the Limoncello Sorbetto. It’s a lovely, tart, icy, and light dessert. This is something I’ll be making often. While the sorbetto spent time in the freezer, I turned back to the Rice and Polenta chapter for the Polenta with Gorgonzola which is a dish Andrews remembers from a spot in Verona. It’s as easy to prepare as it sounds. A recipe of Basic Polenta was made and left to set up in a square pan. I made it the day before I planned to serve it and left it in the refrigerator overnight. Once set, big rectangles of polenta were cut, and they were seared in a hot pan before being placed on a baking sheet and topped with slices of gorgonzola. The cheese-topped polenta rectangles then went under the broiler for a few minutes until the cheese melted and bubbled. Searing the polenta pieces gave them a toasted flavor and made the edges crisp. And, while you could use any cheese you prefer, the big flavor of gorgonzola was a great contrast to the mild polenta.
I think I enjoyed the anecdotes and information as much as the food in this book. And, I know I’ll be pulling it off the shelf often for reminders about some classic dishes and to try some of the ones that were unfamiliar to me. I’m already planning on making the Pistachio Gelato as soon as the sorbetto is gone, and when spring and summer vegetables start appearing, I can flip to several other pages that are also marked.
Polenta with Gorgonzola
Recipes re-printed with publisher's permisssion
When I was writing regularly about wine, I used to make an annual pilgrimage to Verona to attend Vinitaly, the massive international wine trade show. Almost every night during my stay, if there wasn’t an organized banquet somewhere that I had to attend, I would end up (along with many of my colleagues) at a place called Antica Bottega del Vino, on a little side street in the middle of town. (It is said that a century ago, there were literally hundreds of such places in the city.) As its name suggests, wine is the specialty; every available surface seems to be crowded with bottles—supposedly one hundred thousand of them in all—and scores of good wines are available by the glass. I rarely had a complete dinner (I had usually been snacking all day), but one dish I always looked forward to, sitting at a little wooden table out in the front part of the place, was a big slab of slightly charred fried polenta topped generously with just-melting gorgonzola. This is approximately how it was made.
Serves 4 to 6
Basic Polenta (please see separate recipe), cooled in a rectangle 1 inch/2.5 centimeters thick
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil, plus more for brushing and greasing
1 pound/500 grams gorgonzola dolce (young gorgonzola), chilled, then cut into slices 1/4 inch/6 millimeters thick
-Preheat the broiler/grill.
-Cut the polenta into 4 to 6 rectangles, each about 3 by 5 inches/7.5 by 12.5 centimeters.
-Brush the rectangles well with oil. Lightly grease a shallow, flameproof baking pan or dish large enough to hold the polenta rectangles in a single layer and set aside.
-Lightly grease a large grill pan (preferably) or cast-iron frying pan and heat over high heat until very hot. Working in batches if necessary, sear the polenta rectangles, turning once, until crisp and slightly charred on both sides, 2 to 3 minutes per side. As the polenta pieces are done, transfer them to the prepared baking pan, and immediately cover each slice generously with slices of gorgonzola so the cheese begins to melt from the heat of the polenta.
-When all the slices are cooked and covered with gorgonzola, put the baking pan under the broiler until the cheese turns golden, 1 to 2 minutes. Serve immediately.
There’s a lot of conflicting advice out there about how to cook polenta. The water should be boiling, or maybe simmering, or, no, at room temperature. The cornmeal should be added in a thin stream, or just poured steadily from a bowl. The polenta should be stirred constantly for an hour, or maybe an hour and a half . . . unless of course twenty minutes is sufficient. Or, hey, just forget about all that work and buy instant polenta. In the dozen years or so that I was at Saveur, the test kitchen must have made polenta thirty or forty times, using every different method imaginable. This technique, which is basically Marcella Hazan’s, gave the best results for the least amount of work—but it is still reasonably labor-intensive.
Serves 4 to 6
2 cups/320 grams coarse-grind white or yellow polenta
-Put 61/2 cups/1.5 liters water into a large, heavy-bottomed pot and bring to a boil over high heat. Stir in 1 tablespoon salt and reduce the heat to medium-low. When the water slows to a simmer, start adding the polenta in a very slow, steady stream, stirring it constantly with a long, strong wooden spoon. (“The stream of cornmeal must be so thin that you can see the individual grains,” counsels Hazan. “A good way to do it is to let a fistful of cornmeal run through nearly closed fingers.”) Continue adding the polenta and stirring until it is used up and then stir the polenta until it is thick and beginning to pull away from the sides of the pan, about 20 minutes.
-Serve the polenta immediately, or pour it out onto a wooden board or platter to cool for later use, shaping it into a rectangle about 1 inch/2.5 centimeters thick as it cools if you are going to fry it later.