Easy Living

I’ve been cooking so much lately, it’s hard to keep up with all the pictures I’m taking and stories I’m collecting. Well, not stories really, but spontaneous recipes built around farmer’s market ingredients. I share Meg’s sentiment that the farmer’s market is surprisingly expensive, but I find that there are ways around it. For example, the other night instead of buying expensive tomatoes I bought broccoli and made this for dinner:

That’s penne with broccoli in anchovy garlic sauce, adapted from Marcella Hazan. You boil the broccoli ’til it’s tender, lift it out with a spider and then boil the pasta in the same salted water. Meanwhile, in a saute pan you cook garlic, red pepper flakes and a few anchovies (3 or 4) in hot oil. The anchovies will fall apart at which point you could add white wine, if you had any on hand, or add the pasta cooking water. I added some pasta cooking water, the pan sizzled, and then in went the broccoli followed by the al dente pasta. You finish cooking the pasta in the sauce, then top with cheese and that’s dinner.

Last night, I surprised myself and assembled this beauty:


That’s fennel and onion ragu served over polenta. Clearly, watching Molto Mario every day on Tivo is paying off: this dish is a direct result of my studies. (It does feel like you’re in cooking school when you watch it as regularly as I do.)

The big epiphany with this dish is just how ridiculously easy it is to make polenta. I had instant polenta and even the big Italian gurus on TV (in addition to Mario, Lydia Bastianich, for example) say it’s all right to use instant polenta once in a while. Most recipes I’ve read have you cook the polenta in chicken stock, but last night I only had water. So I filled a pot with water, brought it to a boil, added a big splash of salt, a drop of oil and then I began whisking in the instant polenta. When it became thick (approximately a 1 to 3 ratio of polenta to water) I continued to whisk for three minutes, put the lid on, and got on with my ragu.

For the ragu, I had a leftover fennel bulb from cooking with Kirk earlier in the day for my book. I sliced the fennel into thick chunks, then sliced an onion into thick chunks. I put olive oil in a saute pan, heated it for a minute, then added the onion and fennel without adding any salt: I wanted it to retain its shape, not to break down so quick. Without moving it, I allowed it to brown and after a few minutes I did the flippy pan thing and saw nice brown color. I kept sauteing and when it was brown all over I added salt, pepper, red pepper flakes and then a few canned tomatoes (3 or four from a can). I also, spontaneously, added red wine. That’s a great feeling, when you grab things left and right and add them to the pot.

While that cooked down, I chopped the fennel fronds and added them, along with lots of parmesan cheese, to the polenta. Dinner was ready in 20 minutes–polenta on a plate, ragu on top–and I felt like a guru myself. Garnish with remaining fennel fronds and some parmesan, and not only am I a guru: I’m a hot guru.

And that’s what I call easy living.

5 thoughts on “Easy Living”

  1. I’ve been reading and enjoying your site for a few months now and the timing of this post was perfect for me to comment. In Bill Buford’s Heat, he writes a passage on his discovery of how to make great polenta. He suggests that the trick is to cook normal, not instant, polenta for three hours over a low flame.

    I tried this last night with phenomenal results. You start the polenta as you would instant by adding the polenta to boling, salted and (optionally) oiled water, whisking vigorously. The polenta quickly soaks up all the water and you add more. At this point, you can leave the pot and return every now and then to add water and stir. After about two hours, the polenta is truly unbelievable. It has a remarkably smooth texture and the flavor of the corn comes through beautifully. It almost reminded me of the flavor of popcorn, only much tastier. I think the olive oil and salt wonderfully complemented the corn meal and brought out the essential cornyness of the polenta without overpowering it. I really was blown away that simple corn meal could taste so good.

    Buford also comments on the book that he found it strange that Batali recommends instant polenta in his cookbooks and show because it is never used in any of his restaurants. Obviously, it can be used to great results as your post proves. But, if you are going to be around on a lazy Sunday afternoon, I highly recommend doing it the slow way.

    Anyway, thanks for the great home cooking posts. I really enjoy looking at your site and being inspired to create a seasonal dinner with greenmarket produce. (You really can get spoiled in New York between the greenmarket and all the terrific specialty markets for ingredients).

  2. I love flitting around the kitchen , flinging things in a pan in wild flashes of inspiration. It usually happens when thereĀ“s some very silly music on. Confess. What were you singing and dancing to?

  3. Last night, I made your penne with broccoli with toasted breadcrumbs rather than cheese. It’s a recipe from tantemarie.com, and it tastes phenomenal! Next time you cook penne with broccoli, try this recipe out. :)

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