Ah Polenta . . . .

As a gluten free cook, I’m always on the look-out for a regional cooking style that relies on grains other than wheat, so when I recently read that northern Italians are fond of using corn in their recipes, I was excited.  Up until that point, I had only eaten polenta in restaurants or sliced it pre-made out of the regrigerator.   I found what looked like an easy recipe for polenta, and started stirring the cornmeal into the water,  just like it said,  slowly.  Little did I know that before long my arm would be falling off and I would need to recruit the muscle man in my family — Lucas — who spent a half an hour perched on the counter with his headphones on, stirring that stuff until it was thick enough to pour out onto a platter.  So if you plan to make this dish, make sure you’re in good shape, have lots of time, or that you have a surrogate with big arm muscles.  (Yeah, I know, I’m  a wimp.) But it is well worth it — creamy, delicious polenta that looks beautiful on the table.

Our dinner tonight included Polenta with Bolognese Meat Sauce, Cauliflower Winter Salad, and Oranges in Liqueur for dessert, all recipes courtesy of HP Books’ Northern Italian Cooking, by  Biba Caggiano, and slightly modified by me.    The orange dessert is a perfect choice for this meal, particularly this time of year when oranges are so sweet and plentiful.

I recommend making the Cauliflower Salad first so it has time to chill, then do the meat sauce which needs to cook a while,  then make the polenta, and last the orange dessert.

Caulifower Salad/ Cavolfiore in Insalata

  • 1 (2 to 2 and 1/2 lb) caulifower
  • salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 to 2 Tbs. red wine vinegar
  • (optional)  10 or so cherry tomatoes, halved.

1) Remove leaves from cauliflower and slice it in half through the stem.  Fill a large saucepan two-thirds full with water and bring to a boil.  Add caulifower and cook over high heat 15 minutes (or slightly more — better to under cook than over cook).  Drain in a colander. Cool.  Detach florets from cauliflower and place in a salad bowl.  Season with salt and pepper.  Add oil and vinegar and optional tomatoes.  Toss gently.  Serve cold or at room temperature.  6 servings.

Bolognese Meat Sauce/ Ragú alla Bolognese .

  • 1/4 cup butter
  • 2 Tbs. olive oil
  • 1 medium onion, finely chopped
  • 1 carrot, finely chopped
  • 1 celery stalk, finely chopped
  • 1/4 lb. pancetta, finely chopped (available in deli section, or use bacon.
  • 1 to 1 and 1/2 lbs. veal, or any ground meat. (I used a blend of turkey and beef, which tasted great.)
  • salt and fresh ground pepper to taste
  • 1 cup dry white wine
  • 1 28 oz. can crushed Italian-style tomatoes
  • 1/2 cup milk ( I used lactose free milk)

1)  Melt butter with oil in a large saucepan.  When butter foams, add onion, carrot, celery and pancetta.  Saute over medium heat until lightly browned.

2)  Add meat.  Cook and stir until meat is no longer pink.  Season with salt and pepper.  Increase heat and stir in wine.  Cook until wine has evaporated.

3)  Stir tomatoes into mixture.  Cover and reduce heat.  Simmer 1 – 1 and 1/2 hours or until sauce reaches a medium thick consistency, stirring occasionally.  Add milk and cook 5 minutes longer.   Makes 2 and 1/2 to 3 cups sauce, which can be used on the polenta or on gf pasta.

Basic Polenta

  • 9 cups water
  • 1 Tbs. salt
  • 3 cups polenta style corn meal (coarse-grained cornmeal)

1)  Bring water to a boil in a large, heavy pot.  Add salt and reduce heat until water is simmering.

2) Take cornmeal by the handful and add to water very slowly, controlling the flow to a thin stream, letting it out through the bottom of your fist.  To avoid lumps, stir quickly with a long-handled wooden spoon while adding cornmeal. If necessary because of lumping, stop adding cornmeal from time to time and beat mixture vigorously. Cook, stirring constantly, 20 to 30 minutes (!!!)  Polenta will become very thick while cooking, but it is not done until it starts coming more or less cleanly away from the sides of the pot.

3)  Pour polenta onto a large wooden board or a large platter.  Wet your hands and smooth the polenta out evenly about 2 inches thick.  Let it cool 5 to 10 minutes until it solidifies.

4) Cut into 1 x 6 inch slices and place on individual dishes, or slice it up, leave the pieces together on the platter, and pour the sauce over it all and serve for a pleasing presentation.   Tastes best warm or hot rather than cold.

Oranges in Liqueur/Arance al Liquore

  • Zest of one orange, using a zester ( if you don’t have one, get one; it’s not a frivolous gadget but a huge time saver)
  • 6 large oranges
  • 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
  • 1/3 cup sugar
  • 1/4 cup Cointreau or brandy
  • Juice of one orange

1)  Peel the oranges, getting as much of the white inner peel off as possible. I cut off both ends of the orange, then cut through the peel from end to end in several places — just through the peel, not the juice part of orange (a trick I learned from a Chilean guy I met on  a Barcelona train a long, long time ago).

2) Cut oranges into 1/3 inch thick slices, remove seeds, and arrange slices slightly overlapping on a large platter or in individual dishes.  Sprinkle oranges with walnuts and set aside.

3)  Melt butter in a small saucepan.  Stir in sugar, orange zest and liquor.  Stir over medium heat until sugar is dissolve.  Add orange juice.  Cook, stirring occasionally, until sauce is a medium-thick consistency.  Spoon over oranges and serve.  Makes 6 – 8 servings.



About tamisrenteria

Tamis Renteria, author and anthropologist, writes novels and short stories about people struggling with different religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions. She lives with her husband and youngest son in Tucson, Arizona where she types on a Mac, cooks ethnic food, and gardens among the sahuaros.
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