Polenta Power

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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:

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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.

Ssam Bar Brussels Sprouts

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“This is a coup,” said Craig, eagerly chewing a caramelized, spicy, salty, and sweet Brussels Sprout. “This could get kids eating Brussels sprouts all over the country.”

The recipe comes from superstar chef David Chang and it’s a knock-out. It’s a knock-out at his restaurant and it’s a knock-out at home. The components marry in such a way that you’ll start tap-dancing up your wall and moon-walk across the ceiling. I skipped the Rice Krispies bit because I couldn’t find Japanese five-spice powder, but it still came out fantastic.

The recipe was printed in last month’s Gourmet and you can read it online here. I also tried his recipe for the apple salad with bacon but that didn’t fare as well. The bacon I used–which actually wasn’t bacon at all, but a D’Artagnan cured pork belly that I sliced into my own lardons–didn’t produce enough fat to make the dressing. But the peanuts were a tasty snack later. And honestly, if you make a ton of those Brussels Sprouts no one will want anything else. They’re a meal–a feast–unto themselves.

Bring Me The Head of Roasted Cauliflower

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Here’s a secret for successful cooking: follow your urge. Too often we punish ourselves with recipes that are supposed to be good for us or easy to do instead of trusting the greatest tool we have, the little voice in our head that tells us what we’re hungry for.

If you have a craving for pizza or pasta or Lobster Thermidor, that’s a very lucky thing: that’s your body telling you what will make it happiest. Pay close attention, then, and react accordingly. For example, on Friday night my body had an urge for cauliflower. Not just any cauliflower, though: the roasted cauliflower I had with Heidi and Bruce at Pizza Delfina in San Francisco. It’s an entire head of cauliflower roasted with capers and red chile flakes and all other kinds of seasonings.

I thought I’d have to wing it, but then I found this recipe on Epicurious and you know what? It was awesome. You just take a head of cauliflower, get rid of the green, rub the whole thing with olive oil, sprinkle with salt and pepper and pop into a 450 oven until it’s dark golden brown. When it comes out, you pour a vinaigrette made with olive oil, lemon juice and capers over the top. I added some red chile flakes to give it some heat and served it up with the leftover pork from the other night.

Oh my, how it hit the spot. See? Take my advice: listen to your craving. It guarantees success each and every time you cook. Unless, of course, you have a craving for food that is unsuccessful. That’s a conundrum even I can’t solve.

The Polenta Post

Foodies are often polenta bullies. “You should have polenta in your pantry,” they’ll tell you. “I make polenta all the time,” they’ll brag. “I named my first born child Polenta,” they’ll confess. Foodies really love polenta.

And so tonight I adopted a “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy and fried up some polenta, which I presented on my new Ikea plate with fresh made Marcella Hazan tomato sauce. Check it out!

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Has this turned me from one of the polenta picked-upons to a polenta picker on-er? Click ahead to find out…

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Born to Roast (Root Vegetables, Roasted)

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Watching Iron Chef America tonight–Batali vs. Dufresne (of WD-50)–I recalled something that I read, heard or saw somewhere that goes a little like this: “Cooking is about technique. Once you learn the techniques, you can do anything.”

This philosophy makes tons of sense as you watch these iron chefs fly around their kitchens. They are in control because they know how to slice, to dice, to braise, to saute—it’s just a matter of prepping, performing, and plating. Mario Batali isn’t cocky, he’s a master of his craft. He knows his techniques and that’s all he needs to fry, frizzle and filet his opponents. The judges were swooning over his dishes and it’s simply a matter of knowing good techniques for making food taste good.

I know very few techniques. For the record: I can’t saute, I can’t flip an omelet, I can’t make a bernaise or a hollandaise sauce, I can’t roll pastry dough to save my life, and I can’t make Nancy Silverton’s savory caramel corn. In my defense, I can crack an egg with one hand (though almost always bits of shell get in), smack garlic efficiently to peel the skin, chop an onion, and sift dry ingredients (ok, ok, anyone can do that). Where I excel, however, is in the art of roasting. I am a brilliant roaster. I was born to roast.

Tonight I went to Whole Foods without a plan for dinner. There, perusing the vegetable aisle, I had the inspired idea to roast root vegetables. I purchased one white sweet potato, half a pre-cut butternut squash and two parsnips. I came home, peeled what needed to be peeled, cut everything into 1/2-inch squares and placed them on a cookie sheet. I tossed with olive oil, lots of kosher salt and pepper:

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Into a 415 oven it went for 1 hour (give or take a few minutes). I stirred it around a few times while it cooked and eventually I had this:

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On a scale from 1 to “totally awesome wow I can’t believe how good this tastes” this rates a 99. I love sweet potatoes and butternut squash on their own, but prepared like this–where everything caramelizes, gets crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside–it’s pure heaven on a plate.

I therefore declare that roasting is the best technique out of all the techniques you can learn for the home chef. It involves a hot oven, some slicing, some tossing and some seasoning. Anyone can do it. And you can probably roast anything. I don’t think there’s a vegetable in the produce section that wouldn’t taste good roasted, except maybe lettuce—but maybe even that too. Roasting is the secret to the City Bakery salad bar, much of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and the Amateur Gourmet’s bid for becoming an iron chef. (Ok, that’ll never happen, but I may be going to a taping in two weeks that I can’t tell you anything about because I’m going to sign a confidentiality agreement!)

The chicken you see above was roasted, but not by me. It’s half a pre-roasted Whole Foods chicken and once again, as with the vegetables, the roasting brings out all the chicken’s better qualities. If only we could roast people, wouldn’t the world be a better place? Oh wait, we already do!

Ven’ll You Roast Fennel?

The Barefoot Contessa, that wily vixen, she’s just so smart. She told me (via her TV show) to roast fennel and did I listen? Never. “The fennel,” she says, “gets caramelized as it roasts and it’s so delicious.” Did I heed her advice? Not at all.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I was roasting chicken and instead of buying potatoes I decided to buy fennel:

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Love her or hate her, you can’t say Ina’s recipes aren’t user friendly. To roast the fennel: just cut off the stems, slice the fennel in half length-wise, put the cut side down and cut into 1/2 inch slices. Toss on a cookie sheet with olive oil, salt and pepper, throw in the oven with the chicken, flip the fennel at 30 minutes and another 30 minutes later sprinkle with some parmesan, roast 5 minutes more and you have this:

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Golden, caramelized, scrumptious roasted fennel. It’s surprisingly sweet and yet savory enough to complement any main course, like the chicken I roasted along with it. So next time you’re in the supermarket and you see fennel, why not pick some up? As Ina says: “It’s gonna be really good.”