Friday, September 19, 2014

'La Bella Polenta' and Venetian Style Appetizers

First of all, you HAVE to watch part of this video, it's adorable. Leave it to the Italians to make up an awesome song about making polenta. (By the way, I think the young woman on the far right is in the market for a husband- you'll see what I mean.)  Oh and, be warned: the song sticks in your head.

As a person who has only recently acquired the funds to travel to Europe without the assistance of my parents, I am not a seasoned traveler and therefore this isn't one of those braggy posts. I was lucky enough to stay in Venice in June, and while in general I wouldn't say it is the food capital of Italy or anything, they did have some interesting dishes. Unfortunately for us most of the famous dishes involved seafood. My husband doesn't like seafood at all (although he periodically tries it, just to make sure) and I'm allergic to shellfish. By the way, if you're ever there and you need to communicate that you have a seafood allergy you say, "Sono allergico ai crostace."

Of course pasta and gnocchi are served a lot, but they also serve a hefty dose of risotto and polenta (cornmeal mash) too. The best thing about Venetian food though is the cicchetti, tiny little happy-hour appetizers (pretty much Italian tapas.) There was salt-cod salad, truffled ham* (ridiculously good), fried cheese balls, grilled many tasty things. 
*This is truffled ham. If anyone knows where to get it in California, tell me!

Instead of crostini toasts as a base for spreads and cold cuts, they sometimes used little grilled polenta squares. I was raised in Arizona, so to me they taste a little bit like an open faced tamale. Here's my recipe:

4 cups of low sodium or homemade vegetable broth
1 cup of dark yellow cornmeal 
1 teaspoon salt (if you use water instead of broth, use 2 tsp.) 
1/4 teaspoon white pepper (use cayenne or nothing if you don't have white)
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup marscapone cheese or thick cream
2 rounded tablespoons finely grated Romano or Parmesan cheese
a big glug of Tabasco or other hot sauce (I told you, I'm from Arizona) 

Bring the broth, salt and pepper to a boil, and add the cornmeal slowly, whisking the whole time. Stir on high for a few minutes, until the mixture thickens- like oatmeal thick. Turn the temperature down to as low as it will go and continue cooking on low for another 30 minutes, frequently giving it a really good stir with the whisk. 

Add in the butter, cheese and Tabasco at the end, mix thoroughly and vigorously, and then pour it out into a 9"x13" greased pan. Try to even out the polenta as best you can with your spatula, I ended up using a cube of cold butter as a flattener because it doesn't stick. 

Let the polenta cool on the counter for ten minutes, then put it in the refrigerator, covered, to cool completely. Cut the polenta into square or diamond shapes, and then you can either brush the shapes with oil or butter and put them on the grill, or just grill them in a non-stick pan until they are brown, but not black at all, on both sides. 

Here are some basic Americanized toppings you might want to try. Because there is cheese and butter in the polenta, I think putting cheese on top would be redundant, but you do what you like: 

-Fresh or canned salmon salad made with capers, dill and mayonnaise
-Fresh chopped tomatoes mixed with very finely diced anchovy, garlic and oil
-Prosciutto di Parma and chopped green Castelvetrano olives
-Bacon, pepper jelly and almond slices

(This one has Prosciutto, hot pepper jelly and roasted Marcona almonds)

-Roasted chiles, chicken and salsa
-Basil and sun dried tomato in oil or tomato jam and balsamic vinegar
-Thinly sliced steak cooked very briefly and covered in lemon juice, olive oil and parsley
-Leftover BBQ pulled pork and apricot jam or fresh apricot
-Cut the squares big enough to make a polenta Eggs Benedict with bacon, eggs and Hollandaise sauce

You get the idea.  
The Sacro e Profano in the San Polo neighborhood of Venice, worth a visit!

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

My Best Fresh Summer Spaghetti Sauce

I really need to admit to you that we ate most of this up when it was hot out of the kitchen, without taking a picture of course, so this is a picture of my plate of leftovers the next day, with no garnish. On a paper plate. 'Cause I'm classy like that.

The key to this very simple recipe is good quality tomatoes, and a blender or processor of some kind. The blending is going to take the place of cooking the sauce down, you know, to get a nice smooth texture. It will be the perfect sauce to really stick to the spaghetti. Basically you are not really cooking the sauce, as much as you are just heating the tomatoes through and preserving their fresh sweetness. 

If you don't have blender of any kind, you can of course chop everything really tiny, but in that case I would cook this a little longer and I would also use a different pasta: like little shells or orecchiette, something with nooks and crannies to catch all the chunks of sauce.

5 cups (approximate) of fresh cherry tomatoes, squished in the pan or halved
1/2 a small onion, chopped
4 cloves of garlic
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 teaspoon salt (or more- to taste)
1 dash black pepper
a handful of  pine nuts (if you don't have pine nuts, you can try other nuts or seeds, I'll bet it's still good)
1 tablespoon fresh or dried basil
1 teaspoon dried oregano or marjoram
1 tablespoon butter
1 small slice of stale bread, crumbled up, or just toast fresh crumbs in a pan (optional, this is more for added texture if needed, but it's a good idea if the tomatoes are extra watery. If you refuse to use pine nuts, you will definitely need these.)
4 tablespoons finely grated Pecorino Romano cheese (this is not time for Permesan)

If, through no fault of your own, you do not have sweet cherry tomatoes, and you have instead chopped up some tasteless winter hothouse tomatoes, add a teaspoon of balsamic vinegar or lemon juice and 2 teaspoons of sugar to the mix.

In a pot, heat up two of the tablespoons of olive oil over medium high heat, then fry the chopped onion and garlic for about a minute, stirring. Add the tomatoes, spices, the rest of the olive oil, the pine nuts, and heat through for about five minutes. Blend well with an immersion blender or food processor, then put back on the heat, but turned down to low to keep warm while you make the pasta. Cook 16oz of spaghetti or capellini according to the package directions (in SALTED water), and when drained (but still wet) toss immediately with the sauce, breadcrumbs, cheese and butter. 

Don't be alarmed at all this oil and butter. Think about it, there's no meat in it, and it's five tablespoons total for a whole pound of pasta- you should be able to serve four or five people with that.

This goes with white wine of course, and I liked the Neyers Chardonnay I had with it.