Archive for the ‘Piedmont’ Category

Orange Almond-Polenta Cake

My cousin made this delicious, gluten-free cake for her birthday party last weekend, and provided the recipe to the many of us who asked for it! (Via a cook book called Homemade, by Yvetter Van Boven. Recipe below.) In the ingredients it has hints of both Piedmont (polenta) and Sicily (almonds and oranges).

The raspberries on top made it especially festive.

For the cake:
2 whole oranges
juice of one lemon
half cup polenta
1 tsp baking powder
1 Tbsp vanilla sugar (I just used half tsp vanilla)
1 cup almonds finely ground
6 eggs
One and a quarter cups sugar

To garnish
2-3 oranges
half cup apricot jam
raspberries – optional

Cook the 2 oranges whole (unpeeled) for 1 hour in plenty of water. When nearly done, preheat oven to 350. Leave oranges to cool fully, then roughly chop, removing the seeds. Place in food processor, and blitz with lemon juice. Stir in polenta, baking powder, and vanilla, then the ground almonds. In another bowl, beat the eggs with sugar into fine white foam. Carefully fold the polenta mixture into the airy egg foam and pour into a throughly greased 10 inch cake pan. Bake for 45 mins to 1 hour. Leave the cake to cool for 10 minutes, then turn out onto cooling rack to cool fully.

Peel the additional 2-3 oranges for the garnish, removing pith, and slice into thin rounds. Cover top of cake with oranges. Heat jam and pour over cake (there was something about adding gelatin too, but I skipped this), and then I added raspberries to make it look even prettier! Enjoy!

Ricotta-Spinach Gnocchi Roll

Or, more prettily in Italian: Rotolo di Gnocchi con Spinaci. The original recipe is from Autumn in Piemonte: Food and Travels in Italy’s Northwest, by Manuela Darling-Gansser.

I made this recipe last weekend, with logistics help and moral support from Elph and a couple friends who were over! It was a bit tricky, so I’ll post the recipe first, with pictures at the end once you have more of an idea what the process was. My comments on the recipe are in blue.

serves 6

Ingredients:

For  the potatoes:

4-1/2 lbs floury potatoes, boiled
1-2 teaspoons salt
2 organic eggs, lightly beaten
7-10 ounces flour (I used Bob’s Red Mill General Purpose Gluten-Free flour)
3-1/2 ounces unsalted butter, cubed
10 sage leaves

For the Filling:

9 ounces ricotta
2 ounces freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano
1 organic egg
salt and pepper
unsalted butter
2 garlic cloves, crushed
9 ounces frozen spinach, thawed

(I found that my gnocchi roll was enormous – 15 inches long and about 6 inches wide and 3 to 4 inches high. Next time I make this, I will try using half the amounts listed above!)

Put the spinach out on the counter to thaw ahead of time. (Once thawed, I squeezed it quite a bit to get out excess water.)

Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the potatoes until just done.

(Later in the recipe it says to saute the garlic and spinach in butter in a frying pan; I did it while the potatoes were cooking rather than having to do it later.)

(Also, you will need more boiling water to cook the gnocchi in, so keep another pot on the stove and bring water to a boil so you have it when you need it.)

While the potatoes are still hot, peel them and push them through a potato ricer. Now add the salt, eggs, and gradually, the flour. The amount of flour will depend on the kind of potato you use, but remember that the less flour you use, the softer the gnocchi will be. The dough should be soft, but not stick to your hands. (I used about 8 ounces of gluten-free flour.)

With a rolling pin, roll out the dough until about 1 inch thick. (I did this on a piece of parchment paper to make it easier to move later.) Mix ricotta, Parmigiano, egg, salt and pepper in a bowl and then spread it evenly on top of dough. In a frying pan melt a little butter and lightly cook garlic. Mix the spinach with the butter and garlic, cook a few more minutes, and then spread this on top of the ricotta mixture.

Roll the gnocchi dough, ricotta, and spinach into a sausage. Wrap the sausage tightly in cheesecloth or muslin, tie each end, and boil in salted water for about 10-15 minutes. Let cool.
(This was the tricky part. Using the parchment paper, we folded in the two sides to the middle as best we could – it was too thick to roll it up into a sausage shape. Then it took two of us to carefully lift the parchment paper and slide the “sausage” on to the large square of cheesecloth. I wrapped it and tied the ends with cooking (cotton) twine. Then two of us carefully lifted it into my roasting pan, set across two stove-top burners with boiling water in it. My roasting pan was the only thing large enough! It was not ideal since the water did not come all the way over the top, but we filled it as high as we could, and boiled it 15 minutes. Then two of us very carefully lifted it out, using various kitchen implements, and let it cool some. )

Preheat oven to 400F. Butter an ovenproof dish that will hold the roll comfortably, and carefully put the roll in it. With a sharp knife, cut it into slices about 3/4 inch thick. Sprinkle with freshly grated Parmigiano Reggiano, then dot with cubed butter and spread sage leaves evenly over the slices. Cook in oven until golden-brown, about 15 minutes. (I used a cookie sheet since its the only thing it would easily fit on. It was a bit hard to cut, I wiped the knife blade clean between each cut.)

Getting the slices apart when serving was a bit tricky too, but again if I wiped the spatula clean between each piece it helped. I served this with two other dishes from the same cookbook: Cipolle Rosse al Forno (baked red onions) and Cavolo con Acciughe (cabbage with anchovies). I have to admit we did not have a Piedmontese red wine to go with, but the hearty chianti we did have went very well. It was a delicious meal, and we definitely earned our dinner!  PHOTOS follow.

 

Pushing the (lava-hot) potatoes through the ricer.

The potatoes with salt, egg, and flour added - the dough was still nicely soft but a lot less sticky than it was before I added flour.

Spreading first the ricotta mixture and then the spinach on top of the potato mixture. Note the parchment paper to help later with moving it!

We used the parchment paper to help roll up the sides of the "sausage" ideally I think the dough would have covered the filling completely

Moving the roll to the cheesecloth

I tied the ends of the cheesecloth "log" with cotton twine

Then, carefully into the roasting pan of boiling water for 15 minutes

Once boiled, we lifted it out of the water (2-person operation), laid it on a cookie sheet, and untied the strings

Then onto another, buttered, cookie sheet

After slicing, we dotted it with butter and sage, and into the oven

15 minutes later, we were very ready to eat our lovely creation!

My dinner plate, with the gnocchi, baked red onions, and cabbage with anchovy - all Piedmontese recipes, which I'll post soon!

Northern Italy Meets Georgia – Squash Risotto with Pecans

Last weekend I made two dishes for dinner that had Italian origins, but I doctored them with an American ingredient or two: Squash Risotto with Pecans, and Chard with Currants and Pecans. Both recipes called for pine nuts, which I did not have, but, I had plenty of pecans on hand. And the chard recipe called for raisins; I only had currants, but it was a fine substitute. The full recipes are at the end of the post.

Risotto ingredients

The squash cooked with fresh sage

Since I was going to be stirring the risotto fairly often, I wanted to prep most of my ingredients first. (And I find that makes for a smoother cooking experience anyway.) Once the ingredients were prepped, first thing was to cook the squash in a small saucepan with fresh sage and a little salt, and then sprinkle it with a bit of sherry vinegar.

Coating the risotto grains with the oil, before adding any liquid

Adding boiling broth, about a half a cup at a time

While the squash cooked, I started in on the risotto. First, sautéing onions until very soft, then adding the raw risotto and coating the grains well. And then adding the boiling broth a bit at a time.

Adding the cooked squash, when the risotto is almost done

Sautéing the chard

After about 20 minutes, when the risotto was almost done, I added in the squash. And meanwhile, I also did the chard, which was super-easy – sautéing a little garlic, then adding in the chopped chard and stirring until wilted, and then adding the currants and the chopped toasted pecans at the end.

Squash risotto with pecans, and chard with currants and pecans

Both dishes were ready at the same time, I served them immediately, and topped the risotto with some grated Parm Reg. Very yummy! Recipes follow, enjoy,
-Jillian

Squash Risotto with Marsala, Sage, and Pecans
(a modified recipe that originally appeared in Bon Appetit)

INGREDIENTS:
– 4 tablespoons olive oil
– 1 2.5 to 3 pound butternut squash, peeled, seeded, cut into 1/2 inch cubes, about 6 generous cups
– sea salt
– 1 tablespoon fresh sage leaves, finely chopped
– 1 tablespoon Sherry wine vinegar
– 2 onions, chopped, about 3 cups
– 4 cups chicken or vegetable broth, good quality
– 1-1/2 cups arborio rice (I used carnaroli, which is another kind of rice)
– 1/4 cup Marsala or medium dry sherry
– 3/4 cup pecans, toasted
– Parmesan cheese, shaved

METHOD:

1. Heat 2 T oil in heavy large nonstick skillet over high heat. Add squash, sprinkle with sea salt and saute until beginning to brown, stirring often, about 5 minutes. Reduce heat to medium, add chopped sage and cook until just tender, stirring often, about 8 minutes. Sprinkle Sherry wine vinegar over, toss to incorporate. Transfer squash to plate and wipe skillet clean.

2. Heat remaining 2T oil in the same skillet over high heat. Add chopped onions, sprinkle with sea salt, and saute until onions are soft and beginning to brown, 6 minutes. Reduce heat to low, cover, and cook until onions are soft and deep golden brown, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Meanwhile, bring the broth to a simmer in a saucepan. Cover and keep warm over low heat.

3. Add arborio (or carnaroli) rice to onions in skillet. Stir until rice is slightly translucent, about 4 minutes. Add sherry, stir until absorbed. Add 1 cup warm broth mixture, stir until almost all liquid is absorbed, about 3 minutes. Continue adding broth mixture by 1/2 cupfuls, stirring almost constantly, until rice is just tender but still firm to bite and risotto is creamy, this should take about 15 to 20 minutes. Then add the squash, and cook another few minutes, so about 20 to 25 minutes total. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the toasted pecans. Transfer squash risotto to plates and top with shaved parmesan if desired.

Swiss Chard with Currants and Pecans
(a modified recipe that originally came from Peggy Markel’s Tuscan kitchen)

INGREDIENTS:

– 1/4 cup chopped pecans
– 2 tablespoons olive oil
– 1 pound swiss chard, large stems removed
– 3 garlic cloves, minced
– 3 tablespoons currents, soaked and drained
– salt and pepper

METHOD:

1. Toast the pecans in the oven for a few minutes at low heat.

2. Cut chard into 1-inch pieces. Heat oil in large skillet, add garlic and saute until golden. Add chard and saute until wilted. Add currants and pecans and season lightly with salt and pepper.

Making Risotto di Zucca – Pumpkin Risotto

I love pumpkin, and as of last weekend I still had several small pie pumpkins from a local farm. So, I decided to try a recipe I got from an Italian friend, Risotto di Zucca – Pumpkin Risotto. My friend is from Piedmont, where much of the risotto eaten in Italy (and the world) is grown. (Our Piedmont tour this past October went to visit a risotto producer, learned a lot and had a fabulous lunch there, and enjoyed risotto as a primi piatti – first course – at many a restaurant throughout the tour.)

The full recipe is below the photos.

The day before I cooked I made sure I had a bag of Italian rice. The two rices used for this kind of dish are Carnaroli and Arborio (and Italians will argue about the merits of each for best use in various dishes); I had a bag of Carnaroli. And I defrosted 1-1/2 quarts of turkey broth we’d made at Thanksgiving. Ready to start, I peeled, de-seeded, and chopped the pumpkin into small cubes.

Peeled and seeded pumpkin.

Carnaroli rice

I simmered the pumpkin in broth and milk, with a bit of cinnamon and pepper, while I cooked the risotto. I brought the rest of the broth to a boil in another pot, and then kept it simmering, and started cooking the risotto. First step is to coat the risotto in oil, I used melted butter, and stirred it for a few minutes until the grains were well coated.

Pumpkin cubes simmering in broth and milk.

Coating the rice grains in melted butter.

Then I added a cup of hot broth, and stirred until absorbed, and kept adding more hot broth by 1/2 cup-fulls.

Adding the broth to the rice, 1/2 to 1 cup at a time.

Getting soft but a bit al dente inside, just about ready to add the pumpkin.

Once the risotto tasted done – somewhat soft but still a bit al dente in the center, I used a fork to mash the pumpkin in its broth, mixed it in to the risotto, added Parmigiano Reggiano, and served it immediately on warm plates, drizzled with a little Italian olive oil. Along with some fish poached in white wine and parsley, and an Italian white wine. A delicious dinner.

Stirring in the cooked pumpkin.

Pumpkin risotto and fish poached in wine and parsley.

Risotto di Zucca – Pumpkin Risotto

Serves 4

2-1/2 to 3 cups pumpkin, peeled, scraped, and cut in small dice
1 pound carnaroli rice, approx
approx 5 cups broth, for risotto
2/3 cup broth, for cooking pumpkin
1/4 cup milk, for cooking pumpkin
1 pinch cinnamon
black pepper
3 tablespoons butter
1 cup Parmigiano Reggiano cheese, grated
salt to tast

1. Peel, wash and cut the pumpkin in small cubes; put it in a pot with stock and milk and a pinch of ground cinnamon and ground black pepper. Bring to a simmer, turn down to low, cover, and cook everything until the pumpkin becomes soft and can be mashed easily with a fork and mixed into its broth.

2. Meanwhile, bring the rest of the broth to a boil, turn down to a simmer, and cook the rice (usually the cooking time is about 15 minutes). First, stir the rice in a couple tablespoons of melted butter, about 5 minutes, then add the simmering broth in approximately 1/2 cupfulls, stirring until absorbed. As soon as it’s cooked, add the pumpkin, more butter, and grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese. Mix everything, add salt to taste, and the pumpkin risotto is ready to eat!

A visit to D. Barbero Candy Company, in Asti, Piedmont, Italy

Last month we paid a visit to the artisanal candy company D. Barbero in Asti, Piedmont, Italy, and were given a wonderful behind-the-scenes tour by Davide – he and co-owner Giovanni are 6th-generation family owners. They are proud of the fact that the company is and always has been in the vibrant city center of Asti, rather than relocating to the more-convenient suburban industrial areas.

Davide, next to a candy case that their traveling salesmen used in the early 1900s.

A torrone box from the early 1900s.

D. Barbero is most famous for the production of artisanal torrone, a light, crumbly sweet that’s been popular in Italy for literally thousands of years – the Romans had a taste for it. D. Barbero’s version is packed full of excellent ingredients like a particular kind of local honey called Millefiori, real vanilla, Piedmont hazelnuts, and Bronte pistachios from Sicily. They have won many awards for it over the last 100 years or so.

After we toured the little historical section of the building, where they have their medals and certificates and also candy machines from the early 1900s, we went upstairs to the production area.

This is the room where the torrone is made, and Davide introducing it to us. The air had a light aroma of honey and hazelnuts.

The torrone starts out as a fairly thin liquid, and then as it’s gently stirred by the torrone machines it gets thicker and thicker.

Meanwhile, in the adjacent room, the fresh nuts are shelled, roasted, skinned, and then carefully checked for any bad ones. The nuts are then added to the gently-stirred torrone when it’s at the right consistency. The batch they were making that morning was with hazelnuts rather than pistachios:

Once the nuts have been added and the final consistency is reached, they remove the torrone using wooden paddles, lightly shape it, press and roll it into wooden trays, let it harden, and slice and package it. (Our tour was hands-on at this point – we got to help press a batch into the wooden trays.)

Then we went down to their shop, and tasted many of their products. I had never tried torrone before, and loved the light, crunchy texture and delicate honey and nut flavor.

Davide cutting up samples for us in the shop.

Samples of the torrone, as well as their chocolate-covered grissini (breadsticks) and gianduja (chocolate-hazenut) candies. Yum!

A shopping expedition with Chef Sardi, in Alessandria, Piedmont, Italy

On our recent Zingerman’s Food Tour of Piedmont, in northwestern Italy, the group spent a very fun day with Chef Beppe Sardi. For the first half of the day, we went shopping for the ingredients for that afternoon’s cooking class. We shopped in Alessandria, on an amazing street of one high-quality food store after another. The Chef knew everyone of course, and people were constantly stopping him on the street to say hello.

Chef Beppe Sardi at the start of our shopping expedition, explaining some of the stores we'd we going to.

On of our early stops, was a favorite cooking supply store - only the suitcase weight limit made it possible to resist.

We bought many kinds of meat, but not at only one butcher store – we stopped at three: one that specialized in poultry, one in pork, and one in beef. These were all within a few blocks of eachother. Early on he stopped at one little store to buy milk, butter, and flour.

Buying beef for the braised beef we'd be making that evening.

Buying milk, butter, and more than one kind of flour.

The shop where we bought cheese also sold all kinds of salamis.

Buying cheese.

Piedmont is well known for its cheeses, among many other foods.

We're only an hour from the coast here, and fresh seafood comes in every day.

Oxtail, an essential ingredient in a very traditional Piedmont dish called Bollito Misto (boiled meats)

We admired the freshly made pasta, all shapes, sizes, and fillings, but did not need to buy any, since that evening we made our own from scratch. And we took a break for a few minutes at a cafe mid-morning, to enjoy a local specialty that is essentially a mini-cappuccino, with far less milk than a regular cappuccino – this means it’s acceptable to drink by Italian standards, even though it was no longer first thing in the morning!

Ready-made fresh pastas

The mini-cappuccino of Alessandria

We bought some beautiful fresh mushrooms, which we later used to make a light pasta sauce.

Porcinis

Walking through the Thursday produce market.

Turns out that Borsalino, the famous Italian hats, originated in Alessandria, and we were walking right by their original store. So, we had to go in for a quick peek. And one guest bought a lovely hat!

A slight Borsalino distraction

One of our last stops was a tiny produce store, which we had gone back to because it was too crowded to go in the first time we walked by it. Chef bought a few more things, and then we headed back to the Marquesa’s estate for lunch and a brief rest, before putting on our aprons and cooking our multi-course dinner!

Many kinds of beans

Hot peppers

Stay tuned, for a post about our cooking class.

Why did polenta become Italian?

Corn is from the “New World” — why did polenta become a staple back in Italy? Please read on for Ari’s answer. -Jillian

—————–
Polenta; Past and Present

by Ari Weinzweig

Since corn arrived in Europe only after Columbus’ first visit to the Western Hemisphere, it would be reasonable to assume that the history of polenta would seem to start in the Americas. But in truth ground corn meal was a natural next step for people who were already making similar porridges from chickpea flour, chestnut flour, millet, barley and other grains. The Romans used the names pulmentum and puls for these dishes, either of which could have served as a linguistic root for the modern term polenta. In post-Roman, but pre-Columbian times, buckwheat arrived in northern Italy from Asia in the 1200s. Known to this day as Grano Saraceno (the Saracen grain), it too was dried, ground and made into gruel.

Corn came to Italy long after this tradition of porridge eating was well established. In Italian it is referred to as granoturco (“Turkish grain”) which would indicate that, despite its North American origins, it arrived from the Ottoman east, most likely via Venetian traders. One old Italian name for corn is meliga, or melica, derived the even older word for millet to which it was commonly compared. (On the label of the Marino polenta you’ll see the word “meira,” which is Piemontese dialect for meliga.)

In the second half of the 17th century Piero Gaioncelli of Bergamo imported corn and cooking to the region of Bergamo northern Italy. Like the potato in Ireland, the new arrival was seen as a long needed way to feed the poor economically. In a surprisingly short time it was well established as the daily fare of poor people across much of the north; the first part of the 18th century has been referred to as the “Golden Age of Polenta.” Polenta remained a staple of the poor, primarily in the north, right through into the early years of the 20th century. That was the good news. The bad news took a little longer to surface.

Unbeknownst to the Italian peasants who relied on it, the ground corn meal they were cooking was notably different from the seemingly similar meal Americans were eating. Invisible to the naked eye, the Italians skipped a step from the traditional Native American preparation, leaving people on the peninsula vulnerable to a previously unheard of disease.

In the Western Hemisphere corn had long been preparing the dried kernels in water that’s been spiked with an alkaline substance such as wood ash, lye or quicklime. This cooking step loosened the husk and most importantly, unlocked the natural niacin in the enzymes of the corn kernel. Humans need niacin; without it, our tissues start to degenerate. The Native American discovery of this process permitted them to make a cuisine that relied heavily on corn—supplemented by beans and squash—nutritionally viable. Betty Fussell, America’s queen of corn knowledge, called this corn cooking technique (formally known as nixtimalization) the, “…true gift of the Aztec…” Left whole, this limed corn is usually called hominy in the south. Dried and ground it becomes grits.

Polenta makers skipped this stage of the process. The corn was simply grown, dried and then ground, but never nixtimalized. Why disregard such an important step? Convenience, it seems. Europeans were apparently aware of Native American corn cooking techniques. They assumed—incorrectly—that the point of the process was flavor. For poverty stricken northern Italian peasants, polenta was pretty daily fare in the winter; they relied on corn as 19th century Irish came to rely on potatoes. Early in the 18th century, increasing number of poor Italians began to fall victim to a new disease, called pellagra. (The name means, literally, “rough skin.”) The symptoms included nervousness, sore joints, mental illness and the just-mentioned rough skin—appeared when weather began to warm in the spring, after the peasantry had been eating little but polenta for months.

The onset of pellagra left much of the northern Italian peasantry looking pallid and unhealthy. At first corn was blamed, and actually banned, as the cause of pellagra. Many note taking travelers commented on this. In his, Italian Journey 1786-1788, Goethe wrote that: “Of the (Italian) inhabitants, I have little to say and that unfavorable…(the) sallow complexion of the women spoke of misery and their children looked just as pitiful…I believe that their unhealthy condition is due to their constant diet of yellow polenta…”

With little else to eat though, many peasants continued cooking polenta just as they had. Finally, early in the 20th century scientific advancement made clear that nutrient-deficient diets, not corn itself, was the cause of pellagra. Fortunately, it’s one health problem that people don’t have to worry about anymore.

One interesting 20th century side note: Carol Field, writing in, In Nonna’s Kitchen, reported that Italian women’s resistance to the Fascists came when they didn’t want to give up their copper paiolo for polenta cooking. Not surprisingly the government gave in before the women did and let them keep their pots.

Today of course, polenta is one of the most glamorous players in the high, international interest in Italian eating. Perhaps we’re entering another golden age of polenta.

Ari’s Visit to Mulino Marino, Artisanal Polenta Producers, Piedmont, Italy

The October 2011 Food Tour to Piedmont will be visiting Mulino Marino too! Below is Ari’s story of his visit there. -Jillian

Polenta: A Tale of Poverty and Pride
by Ari Weinzweig

To see the pride side of the Italian relationship with polenta, you could take the same trip I did a few years back, to visit one of the best little polenta mills in the Piedmont. This is the region in the upper left-hand corner of the map of Italy that starts in the north at the Alps, and descends down southward until it runs up against the Italian Riviera. Like the rest of northern Italy, the Piedmont has a 300-year-old tradition of growing, drying, grinding and cooking corn. And the Marinos are carrying that tradition forward with enormous enthusiasm.

The Best Little Polenta Mill in Italy?

I can’t say with certainty that the mill of the Marino family makes THE best polenta in Italy—there are a handful of other small mills scattered around Italy that may well make similarly superb products. But I can tell you that the Marinos’ polenta is so far superior to that of the commercial brands that it seems almost another product altogether.

The day we went, it was a wonderfully sunny autumn afternoon and the air was cool, dry and deliciously crisp. The mill sits in the tiny town of Cossano Belbo, high in the hills of the Piemonte. It’s near the truffle town of Alba, not all that far from coastal Liguria, the land of the Italian Riviera. About an hour’s drive down from Turin, you exit the autostrada, cross over the river and head up a small hill, before turning to the right, into the Marino’s mill yard. Inside the gate, there’s room for half a dozen cars to park, or, alternatively, for plenty of corn to dry at the end of the harvest. On the right side is the old works; on the left, a building which houses a newer, more industrial, roller mill. Off to one side is a more modern home, where one of the Marino sons lives with his family. At the back is the old family house cum office, where, happily, a few hours later, we had the opportunity to eat platefuls of the family’s freshly ground polenta.

The old mill room is small, maybe 15 by 15 feet square. It looks like something out of the 19th century, or maybe like a museum piece created to teach modern youths about 19th century milling. The back half of the space is taken up by a raised, reinforced, wooden platform, upon which sit two pairs of powerful granite millstones. The set on the left is for grinding wheat, the one on the right for cutting corn. Unlike those used to press olives—which stand up on edge—the stones used for milling grain lie horizontally, one above the other. Each is about ten inches thick, and roughly four feet across. A trio of steel strips wraps the outer edges of each. The sets of stones sit inside square, well-worn wooden frames, each about five feet across. The stones spin steadily, if slowly by modern standards. Today the mill is powered by electricity, but it was water powered up until the 1950s.

As in almost every old millhouse I’ve ever visited, the Marino’s have a complex, almost comedic, spaghetti-like set up of old wooden gears, pipes, augurs, wires and widgets of various shapes and sizes that make up the works of the mill. Hanging above the spinning stones is a wooden spout that flows out from a hopper holding the dried corn. As the tube vibrates, corn kernels are dropped down into an opening in the center of the moving millstones to begin the grinding process. A steady stream of new yellow polenta pours out another spout below the stones. A hand-carved, well worn, wooden “basket,” with three-inch thick sides, and about two feet long at its most oval-line ends, is used to catch the milled grain as it tumbles out. Hanging on the wall behind the stones is an assemblage of weathered wooden tools, the color of dark leather.

Born to Mill

As we walked the yard, I inquired about the history of the Marino’s mill. I admit, I was hoping to hear some romantic story. Perhaps polenta making had been in the family for 500 years? Or maybe the Marinos were the first Italians to grind corn after Columbus’ return voyage from America? But as it turns out, the Marinos are actually relatively new to milling. A mere three generations—the youngest of which is only in its early teens—have worked the mill. Granted, by American expectations of stability that may seem staunchly solid. But it’s little more than a baby by Italian standards.

Felice (pronounced “Fell-eé-chay”) Marino, the father and polenta patriarch, was born in 1922. About 5’6″, with thin gray hair, and a gray cap, he’s still surprisingly active in the work of the mill. Hand extended, he smiles at me and says, “Marino”—first names are usually forgotten in rural Italian introductions. His hands are rough, but his demeanor is soft. The fingers are broad, well worn from 45 years of milling, with some the thickest fingernails I’ve ever seen.

I casually ask Felice if he grew up here at the mill. Many artisans in Italy spend their entire lives in the same spot working at the same profession, the question was almost a throwaway. So I was caught off guard when he responded with an emphatic, “No!” It’s rare to find Italians relocating to small villages like this one—I wonder if maybe he moved out here from the city as part of some post-war back-to-the-land movement? “No,” he continues, “I’m from over there,” he says, pointing his bent forefinger at a spot high up on the opposite side of the valley. “In another village, up in the mountains.” In America “here” might easily mean merely anywhere in the same state. The town Felice is from might, at most, be five miles away. But in rural Italy, “here” is only this village. Everywhere else is, by definition, “there.”

Over on the other side of the valley, Felice grew up in a family of farmers. But he seemed fated to end up a miller. As a boy he worked as a day laborer, carrying grain to what is now the Marino’s mill. Later his sister married a miller. The older he got the more he was drawn to milling. “In those days,” he said, “there were only three things you could do: religion, medicine, or work with your hands.” In 1955, at the age of 33, Felice followed his heart, left the family farm, and bought out the ready-to-retire miller who’d employed him as a youth. At that time, he told me, “there were nine other mills within 10 kilometers of this one.” Today, his is the only one left. He points to places around the valley, reciting a rosary of names for the now-vanished mills of an earlier era.

The Milling

As we walk, Ferdinando and Flavio, Felice’s sons, enthusiastically explain the milling to us, answering questions, sharing stories, demonstrating the workings of each piece of equipment. Ferdinando, the older of the two, has a handsome, wears a well-trimmed beard and is contagiously enthusiastic about his cornmeal. Flavio, the younger brother, looks much like Ferdinando but younger and without the beard. He seems to be the more technically oriented of the two. Grandson Fulvio, Ferdinando’s younger son, follows, is even more enthusiastic than his father, adding to the conversation with family stories and anecdotes. The kid is incredible. A natural born leader, he’s like 12 going on 24. He carries himself with an assertiveness and confidence that many men never develop at any age.

When we return to the mill room, Grandfather Marino stands off to the side. Although he looks like he’s listening to the conversation, I know he’s paying more attention to the polenta than to the people. As the rest of us talk, he casually, quietly, sticks his hand under the flow to check the feel of the newly ground meal. Saying nothing, he adjusts the wheel, checks the feel again, turns back to the conversation at hand.

Best I could understand it, the old milling system the Marinos use is known as “palmenti;” the bottom stone stays still while the top one turns. Put your palms together parallel to the floor, then turn the top hand slowly and you’ll get the idea. The bottom stone has a pattern of deeper grooves shooting out from its center at off-angles, interwoven, in turn, with a tapestry of similar, but slimmer, slots. The two stones never touch but are close enough that as the corn catches in the grooves, the kernels are actually cut—not ground—into their various components. The thinner grooves then grind the polenta as finely as needed. The centermost ring of the stones is known as the cuore, or “heart.” Moving outward, the sections of the stones are known as “the stomach,” and then, the outermost ring, “the binda,” meaning “jack.” The narrower grooves guide the newly ground corn toward the outer edge of the stones, where it falls into the wooden frame and then out the spout into baskets below. At the same time, the deeper “canals” etched into the stone allow outside air to pass between the wheels, protecting the grain from overheating.

Feelin’ Groovy

As heavy as the stones are I’d have thought they simply stayed in their spots, steady and well-secured for a good 10 or 20 years. Seriously, who’d want to move something so huge? To ensure effective operation, the stones must be removed from their housing a couple of times a month (after roughly 15 to 20 tons of corn have been milled), so that their channels can be checked, then re-cut as needed. Later I learn that American millers call this “dressing the stones.” After removing the wheels from their housing, the brothers run a board with natural red pigment over the wheels to mark the spots where the surface has been ground down. They then set to work with an old wood-handled hammer and a chisel to get the grooves back into shape. The hammering is hardly heavy-handed; it takes skill, and a delicate touch with the tools. Different hammers are used to chisel out different groove depths. Most all of the pigment that’s marked the surfaces has to be removed before the stones are again ready for use.

The Marinos proudly—and repeatedly—point to a stack of four extra sets of stones sitting off to the side of the yard. Since the stones can last decades, such a stockpile signals a miller’s commitment to the future of their work. Talk about slow inventory turns—the Marinos have a multi-generation supply.

Meal in the Mill: Polenta Four Ways

In a sense, eating polenta with the Marinos was a singular experience—a big family meal, the kind I fantasize Italian food artisans always have. At the same time, though, it wasn’t really all that different from the Friday night (Sabbath) family meals I grew up with. We could have easily be eating with my family back in Chicago instead of the Piedmont. Dozens of family photos hang randomly on wood paneled walls. The women keep mostly to the kitchen, cooking, conversing, and stirring, emerging only occasionally to offer up another course and check the group’s progress on the last. Meanwhile, the Marino men and the guests sit at the table, where almost everyone seems to talk at the same time. The kids wander in and out of the room at random moments. As we talk polenta, the dog barks annoyingly. Finally one of the grandsons grabs a breadstick off the table and flings it out the open door. The dog pursues his edible prize into the yard, and the grandson shuts the door behind him, dropping the decibel level down a notch or two. As each course comes from the kitchen it’s accompanied by big smiles on female faces, coupled with concern that the guests aren’t getting enough to eat. This is my first visit to the Marinos, but I keep feeling like I’ve been at this meal a thousand times before.

Any illusion of déjà vu ends when we start to eat. This is nothing like what I grew up with. Baskets come to the table filled with thick slices of bread, hand cut from a pair of square, whole grain loaves. One is made from farro, known in English as “emmer” (though it’s often mislabeled as spelt), one of the ancient, Etruscan grains of the area. The other bread is made of Monococco, which apparently is even older than the emmer. All the grain has, of course, been freshly milled by the Marinos. You can smell the “scent of the germ oil” in the bread, they say. “It’s the best advertisement,” Ferdinando Marino, the oldest of the brothers, mentions. “The fragrance of the scent of nature,” chimes in Flavio, the younger of the two. Both breads show plenty of air holes, a sign of a well-made, traditional loaf. Light brown, with a nice, nutty flavor, they’re more akin to American whole wheat than something I’d have associated with Italy. But then I guess the Etruscans certainly wouldn’t have considered polenta Italian either since they lived a few thousand years before Columbus brought corn back from the Americas.

The first course is composed of simple slices of salame cotto, lardo, and pancetta (more on each of these in a minute). We pull the pieces from big platters, set them on slices of the warm brown bread, and eat as is. All are delicious, and, unfortunately, not really available over here; with half a dozen exceptions—led by Prosciutto di Parma—the cured pork products of Europe aren’t yet allowed into the United States.

The salame cotto is made from pork trimmings, seasoned with spices then stuffed into a natural casing. Simmered for hours to make it tender, it’s typical of a poor region like the Piemonte, where no part of the pig was allowed to go to waste. Served warm, it has the texture of a coarsely ground sausage, with a slightly sweet, savory, meaty flavor. Pancetta is probably familiar by name to many Americans, where it’s often referred to as “Italian bacon.” But this is a whole ‘nother piece of pork than what we’re used to. In North America we eat pancetta cooked. But at the Marinos—and in much of Italy—it’s standard service on upscale antipasto platters, in which case it’s consumed raw, in thin, prosciutto-like, slices.

Lardo, on the other hand, is almost unknown in America. The name alone is enough to put people off its path. Our loss. In Italy, lardo is about as lavish an antipasto offering as foie gras would be in France. To make it, the butcher uses what is essentially American bacon minus the meat. This snowy white fat is then rubbed with coarse salt, rosemary and other spices, then set aside to cure for a matter of months ‘til it’s ready to eat. About as tender as a slice of gently smoked salmon, lardo is pure, cured pork fat with a hint of herbs that pretty much melts in your mouth. You may well be thinking that this sounds terrible. It isn’t. It’s intensely rich, and very good. Eating it—and watching the relish with which Italians consume it—drives home for me once and for all the Italian argument that the fat on a prosciutto is essential to its flavor. If you still had any illusions that the meat—not the fat—matters most, a little lardo will certainly set you straight.

Polenta #1 Polenta Fritta

While we’re finishing up the cold antipasti, the polenta dishes start to surface. First comes polenta fritta—fried polenta. This is made by cutting cooked, cooled polenta into thin rectangles, coating them with additional, uncooked polenta, and then, finally, frying them in olive oil ‘til they’re the color and texture of crisp French fries. The polenta pieces are truly golden in color, both inside and out; it’s a shade so vibrant I’ve come to expect it only in advertising, but rarely in real life. “When you fry our polenta,” says Flavio proudly, “it gets more yellow.” He smiles, then adds, “When you fry industrial polenta, it gets gray.” Lightly crisp and slightly chewy on the outside from the coating of raw corn meal, the slices are tender and soft on the inside. It only takes about two bites before I can tell that this meal is going to be something special. The polenta pieces taste so sweet I ask if there’s sugar in the mix. “No!” comes the quick reply. “Just the polenta.”

“That’s it?” I ask to make sure I’ve understood correctly. “That’s it!” they say. “Just polenta.”

Polenta #2 Con Bacalao

The second course comes out of the kitchen on a wide white oval platter, fresh from the oven. Coin-shaped pieces of cornmeal—cut, again, from sheets of cooked, then cooled polenta—which have been quickly pan-fried in olive oil, then topped with a creamy sauce of salt cod and spices. The bacalao (salt cod) is soaked, then—I think—simmered in milk and water ‘til its tender. Finally, the fish is beaten with olive oil, which, author Anna Teresa Callen (one of the other guests) tells me forcefully, “must be of Liguria.” (“Or,” she adds, accurately, “of Garda, but that’s so expensive, it’s out of the question.” The point is that the oil must be delicate, not strong, or it will overwhelm the fish.)

“About how much oil?” I ask, starting to put together a recipe in my head. “As much oil as the fish will hold,” I’m told. Then add chopped parsley. The sauce is creamy, but sturdy enough to sit atop the polenta pieces without running off. The eight Italians at the table argue vociferously over the proper way to prepare the bacalao. I focus, instead, on the polenta. Then they veer off into an argument over how and when salt cod first arrived in the land-locked Piedmont. Most likely, they decide, it was brought up into the mountains from the coast, in trade for the above-mentioned Ligurian oil, anchovies and other fish from the coast.

Polenta #3 Soft Coarse Polenta

As the salt cod conversation continues, a big, beautiful white bowl of just-cooked polenta emerges from the kitchen in the arms of one of the Marino women. The texture is akin to that of thick, homemade mashed potatoes. It’s incredibly sweet, with . . . what can I say? . . . an intensely appealing flavor of corn. It’s so good, so much more flavorful than any other polenta I’ve ever had that it makes me think back to something I heard years ago from Irish cheesemaker Veronica Steele. She declared one day that, “the difference between a cheese made from raw milk and another from pasteurized milk is the difference between a real sheep and plastic one.” In this case, it’s the difference between real corn and some sort of emasculated, industrial, Quaker Oats rendition.

Amazed at how good it is, I ask one of the Mrs. Marinos what’s in it. “Polenta,” she says matter of factly. I sit quietly for a minute before she realizes I’m looking for a little more information. “The polenta,” she repeats, “. . . with water, and salt.” I sense that she’s starting to look at me a little strangely. It’s not that I doubt her. I’m just sort of stunned by just how good something so incredibly simple can taste. The polenta—the Marinos’ cornmeal—makes all the difference.

Accompanying the polenta is something I didn’t expect to find in land-locked Piemonte: a tomato sauce, laced with tuna, coarsely chopped hard-cooked eggs, garlic and lots of olive oil. Again, the impact of being on the trade route from the coast to the mountains makes itself felt in the presence of the fish.

Polenta #4 Soft Fine Polenta

Moments later, another big white bowl arrives, this one filled with steaming hot, finely ground polenta. Texturally, it’s slightly softer and a bit moister than the coarse ground, but I’m sure that’s a function of a higher ratio of water to corn meal. It takes less time to cook the fine stuff. Only an hour. Personally, I prefer the coarser polenta, but they’re both powerfully good.

The sauce for this dish is similar to that served with polenta #3, but this one uses anchovies instead of tuna, and has a higher dose of hot pepper and chopped garlic. In dialect, they call it bagna d’infern (meaning “bath of hell” or “the devil’s sauce”). When I hear the name it reminds me that the Piedmont is also the land of bagna cauda, the “hot bath” of garlic, anchovies and olive oil. The Piemontese, I think to myself, must really be fond of bathing.

Dessert

Here, I was hoping for a cake made from polenta, but my hope was in vain. I’m sure the Marinos figured they’d already offered up more than enough cornmeal for one afternoon’s eating. We did, happily, get some delicious pears cooked in Dolcetto di Alba wine. The pears are very ripe, and simmered with sugar, cinnamon, and cloves. The sauce is reduced to make a thick, sweet syrup, the texture of a really old Balsamic vinegar, which clings prudently to the poached pears.

Passion and Polenta

Ironically, interestingly, the Marinos seem to have set up a future for the mill that appears to be as solid as the millstones. Felice’s sons and grandsons all appear to be extremely committed to continuing. Those extra sets of hard to-find-old millstones sit in the yard, waiting to be called into use when future generations beckon. Perhaps most importantly, demand for their polenta and wheat flour is stronger than ever. Despite its higher price, restaurants and locals alike line up to buy it.

“Why is your polenta so popular?” I ask.

Ferdinando and Flavio answer adamantly, and almost in unison, “The flavor!” Having eaten immense amounts of it over the last couple hours, it would be hard to argue with them. In fact, I’m getting ready to join the line of buyers, by laying the groundwork to get some to Ann Arbor to sell in Ann Arbor. Having seen the mill, and listened to them talk over lunch, it’s pretty clear that they’ve gone to great lengths to make sure that their polenta is something special. Still, it’s obvious there are easier ways to make a living.

“Why work so hard?” I wonder aloud.

“For Papa!” Flavio says laughing. Although the father is small in size, and now formally defers to his sons in the business, it’s clear from the conversation that Felice Marino is more of an emotional force in the family than one might guess at first glance. “And,” adds Ferdinando, “un gran passione.” A grand passion for great polenta.

That they have that passion is obvious. When they talk about it, the Marinos’ eyes light up. And having dined on the stuff almost daily for decades, here they are, still eating it with relish. Throughout, our conversation is peppered with plenty of laughter. Hearty handshakes abound. The whole family exhibits an authenticity, a passion, an enthusiasm that comes only from being proud of your work and at peace with yourself.

This enthusiasm, this passion for what they do, gets me thinking of what we do back home. I think that same passion that business people from other industries are often drawn to at Zingerman’s. They see this “grand passion” and they want it. Mistakenly, they think it comes just from being close to the food, so they set themselves up in a food business, only to find out that as great as great food can be, it won’t ever make you a new person. Living the reality of the “grand passion” isn’t easy, nor is an accident of fate. I think it’s a choice. When people like Marinos choose this passion, they consciously give up any number of the easier, more financially rewarding paths available in order to stick to something we really believe it. As Paul reminded me the other day, “You have to give something up to get something.” The artisans must give up the chance to, maybe, make more money, or take more time off, in order to produce something for which they have that “gran passione.”

Grits versus Polenta – What’s the Difference?

Ever wondered what the differences are between grits and polenta? Ari did  – please read on for what he found out. -Jillian

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What, you would be right to wonder, is the difference between polenta and grits? Even the most casual observer can tell the two have a lot in common. Both are made from ground dried corn. Both are boiled with water and salt ‘til they become thick porridges. Both take a long time to cook. Both evoke strong memories and big emotional eruptions in people who grew up on them.

1. Grind

In general—and this is a generalization—traditional grits are much more coarsely ground. Polenta is pretty frequently more finely ground. I say traditional grits because the commercial stuff is far more finely done and doesn’t really count as grits for me. Even coarse ground polenta is going to be much finer than medium stone ground grits. “Why?” would be a very logical question to ask, but I don’t really have any good explanation for why Italians would have ended up with a finer grind than Southerners. If you have one, email me and let’s see what we can figure out.

2. Lime or No Lime

There was historically another technical difference in the production of grits and polenta. That is, up until the early years of the 20th century. Until then it seems clear that grits—like most dried corn products in the Americas—were made from dried corn that had been cooked with quick-lime or wood ash, then re-dried and later ground. While polenta was also made from maize, Italians never adopted the North American tradition of first curing the corn. This had some influence on flavor and texture, and a lot of impact on nutrition. So, historically, the two really were different—if related—versions of the same sort of dish. “Corn cousins,” I suppose you could call them.

Much to my dismay, this difference seems to have pretty much passed into history, somewhere along around the 1920s or ’30s. American mills apparently stopped curing the corn for grits, and went straight through from fresh to dry to ground, i.e, grits. I should tell you that this change came as something of a shock to me. Since every book I’ve ever read on the subject says that grits are cured first with the quick lime to make them into hominy, then ground, I confess I was confounded and frustrated when I discovered that this change had taken place and that I hadn’t known about it. It’s my own fault of course. If you believe in anything too much, you’re going to go astray at times. And much as I love books, just because information is in print doesn’t make it right.

3. Perspective

Interestingly, the historical relationships with the people who relied, respectively, on grits and polenta, were pretty much polar opposites. Basically, it’s like this. Corn has been here in the Americas for millennia. African and European immigrants (some arriving by force, others by choice) came later. In Italy, the people were there for ages, the corn came only after Columbus made his now famous trip.

In the Americas, grits were grounded; it was the people who proved transient. Our ancestors came to a continent where corn was often considered a god, and was also the centerpiece of many a meal. It’s we—Americans of non-North American origin, not the corn—that are the aliens, late arrivals who developed their own version of what was already well known to natives.

Polenta, on the other hand, is an American interloper on the scene of Italian cuisine, arriving only in the 17th century, thousands of years after the seeds of good eating had long since sprouted on the boot shaped peninsula. There, the people stayed put and polenta arrived at their doorstep.

4. Cultural Connotations

Most modern Americans really only know polenta from its relatively recent appearance on restaurant menus; few feel all that strongly one way or another. Generally, we either like it, or, at worst, we ignore it. But for many northern Italians, on the other hand, polenta carries an enormous emotional charge. Italians seem to be to have sort of a strange love-hate relationship with polenta in much the same way that the Irish often disdain English influence, yet have clearly adopted all sorts of British routines into their daily lives.

For some, polenta is really the height of good eating. In Paula Wolfert’s Grains and Greens, she quotes a Venetian cab driver, who proudly states: “Polenta is our bread. We cannot imagine a meal without it.” But for others, polenta conjures of images of abject poverty. In A Tuscan Kitchen, chef Pino Luongo writes that, “Tuscany was so poor that bread became the food of the rich and polenta the food of the poor.” Polenta was more drudgery than delight. In Carol Field’s In Nonna’s Kitchen, Lina Vitali, who grew up in the Valtellina, says that poor people: “. . . lived on polenta. They ate polenta boiled with goat’s milk in the morning. They ate polenta with butter and salami, or polenta with a salad of cicoria for their other meal. I lost track of how many ways polenta could be made in Valtellina.” Polenta is so much a part of Italian culture that it even serves as food for prejudicial humor. Southerners (who eat pasta not polenta) refer to Northerners as “polentoni,” literally, “ big polentas,” the Italian equivalent of country bumpkins.

Grits, in contrast, seem to cross class and cultural lines. Southern grits stories focus on family, not on extreme poverty they way Italian accounts of polenta do. Regardless of race, religion or economic origin, almost everyone reminisces about them. John Taylor, one of Carolina’s premier cooks and culinary historians: “Rich people here always ate grits. If you look at plantation journals and big fancy dinners in 1820 their fancy meals were mimicking European court food. But I can guarantee you there was a pot of grits in the kitchen.”

So what’s the difference now?

Ironically, in our own times, polenta has been picked up as a darling of good eating, while grits still get relatively little attention. Polenta, in modern day America, is perceived as a sign of cachet, not poverty. To my point of view, if you’re not self-conscious about your cooking, go with grits. If you want to impress someone, make a pot of polenta. Either way, enjoy! – Ari

Porcini Potatoes and Asparagus Soup from Piedmont

Two dishes from my Piedmontese cookbook really hit the spot recently – Roast Potatoes with Porcini Mushrooms, and Rice Soup with Asparagus. Recipes below.

The asparagus was just starting to come in in my garden so I was on the lookout for new asparagus recipes. And I’d been noticing how many recipes in the Piedmont cookbook called for fresh or dried porcini, so a container of dried porcini caught my eye at my local supermarket.

 

Dried porcini - very popular in Piedmont!

 

Both recipes were pretty easy.

 

Patate Arrosto con Funghi (Roast Potatoes with Porcini Mushrooms)

1 kg (2lb 3 ozs) waxy yellow potatoes 
4 T virgin olive oil 
100 g (3-1/2 oz) dried porcini mushrooms, soaked in 750 ml (25 fl oz) warm water for 15 minutes
About 12 cloves garlic, skin on
About 15 fresh sage leaves
100 g (3-1/2 oz) unsalted butter
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

Preheat oven to 400F. Peel and cut the potatoes into quarters. Choose a roasting pan that will hold the potatoes comfortably without crowding them and pour the olive oil into it. Add potatoes and shake them around to coat with the oil. Drain the porcini, keeping the water they have been soaked in, and add them to the potatoes. Now mix the garlic and sage evenly through the potatoes and porcini. Add the water the porcini were soaked in and lastly chop the butter into small pieces and dot them around. Roast in preheated oven for about 30 minutes, shaking the pan from time to time. The potatoes should be golden brown and full of porcini flavor. Put them on a serving plate and season with salt and pepper. Serves 4.

My Notes: It took longer to cook than 30 minutes – closer to an hour – for two reasons. I think my roasting pan was a little small so the potatoes were crowded, plus I did not peel the potaotes. Was worth the wait though, great mushroom flavor, hearty yet not too heavy. After cooking I peeled the garlic cloves – doesn’t seem appealing to eat the papery  skins.

Mm dots of butter...

Ready at last! Worth the wait.

Zuppa di Riso con Puntine d’Asparagi (Rice Soup with Asparagus)

20 g (3/4 oz) unsalted butter
1 Spanish onion, chopped
100 g (3-1/2 oz) Vialone Nano rice
2 litres (3-1/2 pints) very good chicken stock, or veggie stock
200 g (7 oz) baby asparagus
100 g (3-1/2 oz) freshly grated Parmigiano

In a saucepan melt the butter, then cook the onion for a few minutes. Add the rice and turn it so that it is well coated with the onion and butter mixture. Now add the stock and cook for about 15 minutes. Cut the asparagus into 2 cm (3/4 inch) long pieces and add them to the soup. Cook until the asparagus is tender, but still has a bit of crunch. Take off heat, add the Parmigiano and serve.

My Notes: I used my homemade chicken stock from the freezer, which is very flavorful so that added a lot to the dish. I had asparagus from my front yard but not baby asparagus. And, I had Arborio rice rather than Vialone Nano – still from Piedmont though! Was tasty and light, a fine pairing with the potato dish.

The first few spears from my garden

Flavorful and light