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Tuesday, March 09, 2010

In Praise of Parsons, Polenta & Prosecco

I have a huge crush on Russ Parsons, Food Editor of the LA Times.  I think he’s just dreamy!  Not in the creepy, ‘Kathy Bates in Misery I’m your Number-1 Fan’ way but a healthy admiration of his encyclopedic knowledge of food and his joy in sharing his knowledge.  Listen to him on KCRW’s Good Food talking about making a Ragu  it can make vegetarians drool.  He’s never let me down on Thanksgiving turkeys, vegetables or abalone.  He’s a smart, informative writer and his joy and genuine love of food is clearly evident in his writing and in interviews.

The February 18, 2010, LA Times Food Section had a great article by Russ and his love of polenta.  Me too, who doesn’t love polenta!  My love affair with polenta started about long ago….

Years ago we spent a wonderful weekend in a hillside village in the lower Italian Alps way north of Bergamo.  Polenta is a way of life in the villages, a staple that’s eaten every day.  It’s not chic and interesting, it’s peasant food meant to fill bellies on cold nights.  People eat so much polenta that they used to develop goiters (it has to do with corn’s blocking of niacin and iodine absorption) – so much so that the Commedia delle Arte puppet that represents the area is Gioppino a good natured peasant, a lover of good food and wine with three goiters.

One afternoon I was staring out the second floor window watching the rain fall on the roofs of the houses dotting down the hillside.  The door to the house across the road opened and an umbrella popped open, a man stepped out holding the umbrella away from himself over the door, then a woman rushed out with a large wooden plank topped with a steaming golden dome of polenta.  Off they rushed down the street, the polenta under the umbrella and the couple getting soaked.  I went downstairs and asked our hostess what it was that I had seen – and she introduced me to polenta.  I asked so many questions (was it grits, cornmeal pudding, how do you eat it and what to you eat with it?) that she changed the evening’s menu and set about to show me how to make polenta.  I learned to make polenta in almost the same way it had been made for hundreds of years (except over a gas stove and not over a fire).  That was it – I was hooked. 

It’s an incredibly simple food:  The key is cooking slowly and evenly and stirring.  You can make enough for one person or an entire army if you know the ratio:  4:1.  Four parts of water (or stock) to one part of polenta,  A little butter, salt and parmesan cheese and you have the perfect canvas for any of your favorite braised meats/vegetables.

I always make way more than we can eat at one sitting – so what to do with the leftovers?  That’s when polenta really shines!  Here’s my recipe for an appetizer perfect with a glass of Prosecco before a leisurely Sunday lunch:  Torta di Polenta

4 cups Water
1 cup polenta
2 Tbl unsalted butter
3 heaping Tbl finely grated Parmesan cheese
Salt to taste
-       OR:  3 cups of leftover polenta

1/2 cup diced roasted red peppers
1/4 cup diced sun-dried tomatoes
1/2 cup shredded mozzarella cheese
1 clove garlic, finely minced
Black pepper to taste

Prepare your polenta:  bring the water to boil in a heavy saucepan and stir in the polenta slowly.  Lower the heat and stir while cooking for about 15 minutes.  Stir in the butter and parmesan and cook another couple of minutes stirring frequently. 
From leftover polenta:  to ‘reconstitute’ polenta put it in a heavy saucepan with 1 Tablespoon of water for every cup of polenta, turn heat to medium low and stir until polenta is warmed and smooth.

Into polenta (still in the saucepan on the stove) stir remaining ingredients and cook another five to ten minutes stirring slowly.  Taste for seasoning and adjust salt and pepper. 

Pour mixture into cake or springform pan and chill for an hour.  Can be made ahead of time and refrigerated for a couple of days.  Unmold torta to serving plate, cut into individual serving wedges.  Place slices on cookie sheet and warm in oven (350 degrees for about 10 minutes).  Serve on individual plates with Sage & Tomato Sauce, garnished with a crumble of gorgonzola.

Sage & Tomato Sauce
1 Tbl olive oil
1 shallot, slivered
3 sage leaves, slivered
1 cup Perfect Simple Tomato Sauce

Buon Appetito!


  1. Anonymous11:51 AM

    That sounds so good! I'll definitely have to try it.