Tag Archives: polenta

What are friends for?

29 May

Over the next couple of weeks many of these corn kernels will be planted in several undisclosed locations around the Northeast. I know this because I am personally dispersing them as we speak.

In the interest of plausibly denying the specific whereabouts of the crops I have chosen to not ask any questions.

Neither should you.

See, back in 2012, I came into possession of a handful of seeds meant to grow corn not for eating but for manufacturing polenta. (Here’s the original post, showing how to make your own polenta at home.)

Though the seed was at one time available in the United States it hasn’t been for several years now. I never was able to find out why it was banned, not definitively, though a well-informed friend and I have long suspected that The Evil Monsanto might have something to do with it. (You know, the Monsanto that controls around 80 percent of the country’s corn crop.)

This friend—let’s call him “Tony”—surprised and delighted me the other day by slipping me a couple ears just in time for this year’s planting season. I had stopped growing the polenta corn three years ago but Tony has kept it up ever since I gifted him with the seed to start his own crop.

Tony makes his living… Scratch that, nobody needs to know what he does. And he lives in… Actually, best we not reveal this information either. The point I’m trying to make is that the guy knows about growing stuff. And he’s become committed to keeping this strain of polenta corn around for as long as he is able, no matter what Big Ag does to kill off such noble efforts.

Sadly, I had somehow managed to lose sight of my responsibility in this mission.

I’m lucky to have a friend who could set me straight.

Escarole & polenta pie

31 Dec

It may not look like much but few foods are more comforting to me than this one. I’ve been eating polenta with escarole since I was a boy and no matter how many times I make it, it always tastes the same. Even when it isn’t.

You know how that is.

Anyway, it’s New Year’s Eve and we’ve all got lots to do. I’ll get right to it then.

As with so many good things, start out by sauteing lots of garlic, anchovy and a little hot pepper in plenty of good olive oil.

After a couple minutes toss in your escarole and cover so that it steams a bit. This is 3 bunches of escarole here, which have been cleaned and chopped.

Making polenta is an inexact science and so go with the way you’re most comfortable. In terms of quantities for this dish, I used 1 1/3 cups of polenta and cooked it in around 7 cups of water.

Once the escarole has softened remove the lid, add some chopped kalamata olives and pine nuts, and saute another couple minutes. Salt and pepper to taste. (I’ve also had this with raisins instead of olives, which is more Sicilian style, and it’s great too. And it works without the pine nuts too.)

Assembling is a piece of cake. Just put down a layer of the polenta in a baking dish that’s been lightly coated with olive oil, so that the bottom of the pan is completely covered.

Then add the escarole, but make sure not to use very much of the liquid that’s left in the pan it sauteed in. I just scoop out the escarole with a slotted spoon.

All that’s left to do now is put down another layer of polenta, at which point cover the pan with aluminum foil and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F. After 30 minutes remove the foil and bake for another 15 minutes or so. The edges of the polenta should start to brown slightly. Think of it as if it’s lasagne; that’ll help figure out when it’s done.

This was in the oven close to an hour. It’s best not to cut into it immediately; let it rest at least a few minutes or more and then have at it.

I really do love this stuff.

Happy New Year everybody!

Beef short rib ragu

24 Oct

The furnace has been running lately. So has the living room fireplace.

It’s braising season.

Not a lot of things are better for braising than short ribs. They’re terrific served whole, of course, but I was in the mood for a hearty ragu the other evening, and so that’s the direction I went in.

Nobody complained.

I started out with 3 pounds of beef short ribs. After liberally seasoning the ribs with kosher salt and black pepper I dredged them in all-purpose flour and then tossed them into a dutch oven with plenty of olive oil.

After the ribs have browned on all sides, remove and set aside.

Add one large chopped carrot, two celery stalks, one medium onion, one leek, four garlic cloves, and some thyme. Saute until the vegetables have softened.

Return the ribs to the dutch oven and add one quart of stock (beef here), 2 cups of red wine, and one can of tomatoes. Let the liquid come to a boil, then cover the pot and place in an oven preheated to 375 degrees F.

After around two hours check that the meat is tender. If it isn’t tender continue to cook until it is. Once tender remove from the oven and allow things to cool.

Once cool enough to handle, remove the ribs from the sauce and pick away all the meat from the bones.

All that’s left to do now is add the meat back into the sauce, reheat and serve.

As you can see by the picture up top I served the ragu over polenta the first night. The next night I went with cavatelli.

It feels like winter tonight. I only wish there was still some of the stuff left.

Sauerkraut, Italian style

5 Jan

You are not hallucinating. That is indeed a big old mess of sauerkraut being added to a simmering pot of tomato sauce.

Weird, huh?

Not if you are a member of my family, it isn’t. To many of us, this dish has been a staple for many decades. In fact, it was the subject of the very first item that ever appeared on this blog, back in April 2010. (Click here to see the original story.)

It being a new year I decided to start it off by giving this unusual family recipe the full step-by-step treatment, which it did not initially receive. It is the concoction of a man named Luigi, the stepfather of my dear Aunt Laura. Luigi was from Trieste, in the north of Italy and on the border of Slovenia. This would explain his affinity for sauerkraut, but in decades of research I have never once come across a recipe that, like his, puts the stuff together with a red sauce.

You may be tempted to write this off as too oddball a pairing to attempt. I know that it sounds weird, believe me. But I have served this dish to many people over the years, including serious chowhounds and even a couple of professional chefs, and rarely am I not asked to provide a recipe.

Okay, so get yourself a couple of those one-pound bags of sauerkraut you see in the refrigerated case and dump them into a colander so that the liquid drains out. (Luigi did not rinse his kraut, and neither do I, but you may choose to in order to cut down on the acidity a bit.)

Cut up about a pound of pork butt into one-inch cubes.

In a medium-size sauce pot saute two or three garlic cloves (and some hot pepper if you like) until softened.

Add the pork and allow the meat to brown.

Then add two 28-ounce cans of tomatoes and bring to a boil.

Then stir in the sauerkraut and turn down the heat so that the sauce cooks at a slow to medium simmer.

In about an hour the sauce should be done, but you could also simmer it for longer. I usually give it a taste and decide.

If you did happen to click on the original story about this dish then you will have noticed that the headline was “Luigi’s polenta.” That’s what we call this dish in our family, and over polenta is the only way that we eat it. I strongly urge you to follow our lead here and have ready a nice potful of the stuff.

You will not be disappointed.

Have a very good year everybody!

Luigi’s Polenta
Recipe

2 garlic cloves, chopped
1 pound pork butt, cut into 1-inch cubes
2 28-ounce cans of tomatoes
2 pounds sauerkraut, drained of the liquid (you may also rinse it, to cut down on the acidity, though I don’t)

1. In your favorite pot for making sauce, saute the garlic in olive oil until softened. (I also add some hot pepper.)

2. Add the pork and saute until lightly browned.

3. Add the tomatoes and bring to a boil.

4. Add the sauerkraut (we use the bags you get at the supermarket in the refrigerated section).

5. Turn the heat to low to medium and let simmer for at least an hour (longer is fine if you prefer).

6. Serve over polenta.

Grow your own polenta

2 Mar

Last summer, for reasons that I cannot entirely comprehend, I became gripped (gripped, I tell you!) by the idea of manufacturing my own polenta. I went so far as to track down and procure a corn seed designed specifically for this purpose, from a faraway source that I am not at liberty to disclose. (For real. The stuff has been determined to be illegal in the United States.)

Being the patient, do-things-the-right-way type, and knowing not a thing about growing corn or making polenta, I searched the mighty interweb seeking guidance but found none. And so, kernels in hand, I decided on a strategy not the least bit unfamiliar to me: I’d just wing it!

Thrilled doesn’t quite describe my reaction to the outcome. The fourteen ears of corn that I had designated for use in this experiment yielded five cups of the sweetest, best-tasting polenta that I’ve ever had. No kidding. It was terrific! I’m already planning this summer’s corn crop, and it’s going to be bigger than last year’s. Just don’t tell the Feds about it, okay.

So here’s how it went down. When the corn was ready last July I peeled back the husks to expose the ears, then tied the ears together with string and hung them from a curtain rod in the dining room so that they could dry out.

Around November I decided that I had had enough of the waiting game and so I cut the ears down and got to work.

I suppose there are tools that one could use to extricate the kernels but I was in an impatient mood and so I just used my fingers. For the most part simply rubbing the kernels with some force did the trick.

Like so.

In small batches I then started working the kernels in the Vitamix. This is not the best tool for milling polenta, as it’s powerful and can turn the kernels to powder pretty quickly if you’re not careful. But I was careful, pulsing as slowly as I could get away with.

And in the end I had this pretty nice mountain of gold.

The consistency wasn’t terribly uniform, but I’ve got time to come up with another method for this coming summer’s crop.

The most important thing was the taste. I’ve had a lot of polenta in my life, plenty of it very good quality and from all over the world. This stuff was the best. Because it tasted like sweet corn. Everybody who tried it agreed. And everybody wanted more.

Which is reason enough to seriously up production this summer.

I can’t wait.

Roasted corn polenta

6 Jun
I once knew a man named Dave. He had a PhD in food technology from MIT, held important jobs for the biggest companies on the planet, and was personally responsible for bringing several well-known food products to grocery store shelves throughout the world.
I liked Dave. And miss him now that he’s gone.
In summer we ate a lot of sweet corn together. Dave’s house was only a few miles from a very nice family farm in southern Connecticut, and whenever I would visit in sweet corn season there was never any doubt as to what we might eat.
Going to the farm with Dave was both enjoyable and, to be honest, a bit unnerving. Dave was a scientist to the core, a brilliant one at that. He made it his business to know, or at least estimate within acceptable margins before leaving his house, when the sweet corn would have been picked (twice a day at this particular farm as I recall). When we arrived at the farm Dave would always press to speak with the person who had direct knowledge of the corn’s harvesting that day. This information, though mildly interesting to me, was crucial data to the scientist that I rode with.
Dave had a rule: The time between picking and eating should not exceed two hours. Go outside this limit and the corn’s sweetness was, to Dave’s mind, compromised, as sugars turn to starch immediately after an ear of corn is snapped from its stalk.
I have never doubted this rule. Because never in my life have I enjoyed corn more than the corn I enjoyed with Dave.
This roasted corn polenta we have here? I would never have served it to Dave. We’re weeks away from sweet corn season in Maine, and so I had to rely on Florida farmers. It isn’t often that I do this, what with how Dave’s flawless corn-picking strategy has stayed with me all these years. However, I am not a patient man. I wanted me some corn. Right now.
I went the roasted-on-the-grill route because of the added depth in flavor it brings to the corn. Friends were coming over and so I grilled a dozen ears, allowed them to cool, then shaved off the kernels with a knife.
Into a food processor went about three-quarters of the kernels, along with a little less than half a pint of cream.
In a deep saute pan went a half stick of butter, the remaining kernels, salt and pepper to taste and the processed kernels. I also added some chicken stock to thin it out, as well as some milk later on. (An associate, whilst passing the stovetop on their way to an open wine bottle, tossed a pinch of fennel pollen into the  mix while I wasn’t looking. How fennel pollen came to be in this person’s fingers I cannot say.)
Not much to look at, but I couldn’t stop eating the stuff. 
Dave might have even liked it. Had I managed to summon the nerve to present it to him.

Polenta lasagne

4 Apr
Polenta? Check.
Meat sauce? Got it.
Oven pan? Right over here.
Talk about your no-brainers.
Make some of this, would you. Thank me later.
It all starts with a good-quality base. I know some people swear by the instant stuff, but I always go with the real deal, a good Italian polenta that takes time (half an hour at least) and patience (constant and uninterrupted stirring) to cook properly. Here you have two cups of the stuff, which is mixed with eight cups of well-salted boiling water.
My ancestors are no doubt rolling over this, and I myself may go to Hell because of it, but I use a whisk for stirring polenta, not the sacred wooden spoon that generations of polenta makers have relied upon. The whisk just works better, okay. Somebody had to say it.
When the polenta is done, pour it onto a flat surface. I used a cutting board, which first got a light coat of olive oil to prevent sticking.
While it’s still hot, spread the polenta so that it’s evenly dispersed, then allow it to cool.
Everybody has their own idea about what makes a good meat sauce. I have several ideas. This one’s got ground beef, shredded pork, pancetta and a little sausage meat. Oh, and tomatoes, garlic and some onion. But you knew that.
All that’s left to do now is start layering, just as you would with any lasagne. Layer of sauce on the bottom, slab of polenta, like that.
In the middle and on top I run a cheese grater (with Romano here) over the meat sauce. (There’s no ricotta or mozzarella in this version, but I would not stop you from adding it to your own.)
After about an hour or so in the oven (at 350 F), the first forty minutes covered in aluminum foil, you have got yourself one extraordinarily satisfying “lasagne.” Even if it’s really polenta.
And don’t forget to wait awhile before cutting into the thing. It doesn’t need to rest as long as a real lasagne, but fifteen or twenty minutes wouldn’t hurt.
What, you’re in a hurry?