Mushrooms are scary. Eat the wrong one, and it can kill you or make you think you’re Jesus (luckily, if you think you’re Jesus and it kills you, you can raise yourself from the dead). As a child, I absolutely loathed raw mushrooms in salads at pizza restaurants. That was my first impression of mushrooms: these spongy, weird, white things that ruin a very crisp experience. Blech.
It was so hot here in L.A., last week, I couldn’t bear to go outside. Then, quite abruptly, the heat went away and this morning I found myself turning off the A/C early, chilly under our light summer blanket. A change of season is afoot–especially in places that aren’t L.A.–and mood-wise, that might be kind of depressing, but food-wise? This is my favorite transition, from light summer salads to hearty winter braises. Consider this particular recipe, adapted from Sunday Suppers at Lucques, the perfect transitional tool.
My favorite way to cook, the cooking that makes me happiest, is the kind of cooking you do on the fly: no planning, no prepping. You just see what you have already on hand and you make dinner. And often that dinner is way better than the dinner you spend a week prepping for, shopping for and methodically executing. I have a theory about this. The theory involves cravings: the food that you crave in a specific moment directly correlates to something that your body wants. So, when you’re making dinner on the fly, if you add an extra pinch of red chile flakes? That’s because your body’s craving some heat. And that’s why the dinner you make on the fly is often so satisfying.
In the Chelsea Market, on 9th Ave., there’s an Italian goods store that features rows upon rows of imported treasures from Italy. There you’ll find salt-packed anchovies, genuine San Marzano tomatoes, even white truffles for several hundred dollars a pop. Every time I go in there, I marvel at the goods and then I leave empty-handed: I never know what to buy.
Recently, though, I was determined to buy something. I toured around the store and there, in the back corner near the meat counter, I spotted it: real, Italian polenta. When I say “real” polenta I mean not instant polenta. Everywhere else I’ve ever bought polenta–Key Foods, Whole Foods, Union Market–only sells instant. I wanted to experience the real deal, the kind that cooks for 45 minutes. And so I left the Italian goods store with not one but two packs of genuine Italian polenta.
I wish now to describe to you the difference between instant polenta and “real polenta.” If this were the SATs, it would go something like this:
1. Instant polenta is to regular polenta as…
(a) Care Bears are to polar bears;
(b) sitting in a massage chair at the Sharper Image is to spending a week at an Arizona spa;
(c) table for 1 at the IHOP is to table for 20 at The French Laundry.
(d) All of the Above.
The answer is D and if you haven’t yet made REAL polenta at home you get a D in my book. It’s such a shocking thing–it’s so much creamier, sultrier, sexier than instant polenta, I feel like a polenta virgin who just spent a night with Sofia Loren in a bordello. What? I don’t know. Polenta power!
So the dish you see above is polenta for breakfast. It comes from Lidia Bastiniach’s book “Lidia’s Family Table” and it’s as hardy a breakfast as you could want, especially as the weather gets colder. You cook the polenta for 40 minutes with 5 cups water to 1 cup polenta and a pinch of salt, plus a few bay leaves. Lidia has you stream the polenta into the water when it’s cold, whisking all the way, and then turn on the heat–I’m not sure what that does, but it certainly produced excellent polenta. You must stir as it goes–every few minutes or so–or it’ll stick.
Once it’s cooked through, you add a cup or two of grated Parmesan (yum!) and half a stick of butter (double yum!) And here’s the real smacker (smacker? Adam what kind of word is smacker?): once in the bowl, put an egg yolk on top and the residual heat will cook it. Grate over more cheese, some pepper too and you have a breakfast of champions. Italian champions. Like Rocky—cue Rocky music.
If you want polenta for dinner, do as Alice Waters says to do in her new book “The Art of Simple Food.” Get a baking dish, layer in polenta, tomato sauce, fresh mozarella, and Parmesan and make a polenta lasagna. Bake in the oven til golden brown on top, like here except this didn’t get really gold:
But what a dinner. Diana came over that night (remember Diana? She was my old roommate) and all three of us dug in with abandon. It was messy–it was hard to make pretty on the plate–but it was oh so good.
And so, I hope I have convinced you of the power of polenta. Real polenta, not that mamby pamby instant kind. If you’re going to make polenta, make the real thing. It’s worth it.