Friday, April 07, 2006

Last Chance Polenta

C'mon! Hurry up and eat it before it gets too hot!

Springtime, for me is the last chance to make polenta, a hearty, cozy, warming kind of food totally anathema to summer. I used to love watching Mario Batali on the Food Channel, the times I got to see him anyway, not having cable. I bought the book “Simple Italian Food” by Mario and the dishes I have tried are delicious and like the book says, simple. Shockingly, there are only 4 ravioli recipes in this book. Mario seemed never to have a show without cutting, filling and folding pasta to make ravioli.

Ever since making one particularly disgusting dish (with a seductive title) for the 3rd time, I’ve learned to edit my cookbooks. I write notes in the margins about what ingredients I REALLY put in and how the dishes turned out so as to remind myself what to make again and what to avoid in the future. I never developed any scientific grading, just: “Boring, Good, Good!, Very good, Very good!, and Delicious!” Don’t ask me the difference between Good!, and Very good or why there’s never a “Delicious!” without underlining and an exclamation mark. It speaks more to how I was feeling at the time. Anyway Mario’s recipe for “Soft Polenta with Asparagus, Prosciutto, Garlic and Ramps” (the way I did it) got a ¡Delicious!, (the Spanish punctuation expressing my extreme happiness with the results of this one.) Here’s the recipe:

(serves 4 as a single-dish meal)
1 lb asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 cup polenta
¾ cup mascarpone or cream cheese
2 tbsp butter
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
a 4 oz slice of prosciutto or cooked ham, in a ¼-inch dice
12 ramps or fat scallions, roots removed and cut into 2-inch pieces
juice and grated zest of 1 smallish lemon
½ cup dry white wine

Mario’s original recipe gives you a soft and creamy polenta, nothing you could ever slice and grill, for example. He did not allow for any substitutions for the mascarpone, prosciutto and ramps, but included a boatload of butter and more mascarpone than I put here. I did the recipe strict-to-specifications the first time and I can say after having made it several times hence with all of these substitutions, that they work beautifully. And nobody needs 6 tablespoons of butter in a polenta dish. Well, maybe if it were January. In Quebec.

Bring 4 cups of water to the boil. Add the asparagus and cook until barely tender, 1-2 minutes (depending on thickness of asparagus). Remove the asparagus with tongs and place in an ice bath.

Now pour the polenta into the asparagus cooking water – off heat - while whisking constantly. Music to whisk polenta by: The Velvet Underground and Nico. “I’m Waiting for the Man” really gets your whisking arm going, then afterwards you can snicker at German Model, Nico's deep robotic Schwarzenegger voice on "All Tomorrow's Parties". Not that I want to ridicule her or anything, that voice adds a perfect unsettling touch to a band for whom "unsettling" would have been this highest of compliments. Once all the polenta is incorporated, start stirring with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes. You will get a “Cream of Wheat” sort of consistency. Take off heat, cover and set aside.
In a large frying pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the ramps or scallions. Cook for 5-7 minutes (again, depending on thickness) until they are wilted. Add the garlic, prosciutto, asparagus, lemon juice and wine and let the mixture come to a boil and cook another 2 minutes. Sprinkle the lemon zest on at the last minute before dividing the polenta among 4 wide, shallow bowls and spooning the sauce on top.


Blogger Tracie P. said...

i cannot immagine amyone in italy actually making polenta with "so many" ingredients, but i cannot immagine why you wouldn't!!


i love mario's show too :)

12:28 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

You know, I actually contemplated making some polenta here just to give my dad a taste of it but in the end I figured with the tropical heat and all, one bite and he'll simply say that I'm feeding him grits. So I'm just sticking with rice...

I miss the food in Italy but for some reason I just can't get into Mario whenever I see him on FN. Suddenly Anna and Antonella from Rai1 pop into my head and I'm thinking, where's the damn cow and goofy songs? Plus Beppe manages to always crack me up whenever he gets his 2 cents in!

8:10 AM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Hi Tracie,
You're right. Elegant simplicity reigns here in Italy. I think sometimes foodies take things a bit too far or they lose sight of what is considered normal by most people. For example, Martha Stewart's "Quick Cook" book, defines "quick" in the introduction as "cooking for 1 hour" excluding ingredient preparation, chopping, etc. She geared this book toward the 1980s career wife and mother, so evidently you were suppsed to come home from work and accomplish this too. I don't hate her, but I understand why other people do. I'm also a foodie extremist, not that I'm really good, just that I'm usually willing to spand 3 hours making something.

2:23 PM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Hi Rowena,
I'd love to try grits! Never have before having spent precious little time in the South. Do they cook them in Hawaii?
There's something about Antonella Clerici that just makes me love her. Maybe it's the zany lack of self-posessedness or the fact that she's huge in Italy without (to my knowledge) ever having been a model or a vellina. However, Anna's squeaky voice makes me run for the volume button on the remote and that white haired guy with all the know-it-all comments and the no helping, is that Beppe? I wish the ladies would shut his mouth more often. They do all the work and he makes critical comments.

2:32 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...


A lovely photo.

I found myself, though, spoon in hand and wondering what to do with the marscapone and the iced asparagus.

Ended up incorporating the cheese with the polenta after the corn meal had thickened some, adding a generous handful of grated parmesean reggiano and a pinch or 2 of salt. The asparagus I returned to the pan to warm with the ramps, prosciutto, and sauce.

Yum, but not enough ramps, and not as lovely as your picture. Maybe express the ramps in terms of weight: I suspect those I used in NY were too young and thin to hold up to the asparagus. Yours, pictured, look to be as thick as a thumb. Mine were more like spaghetti, and 12 was not enough...

3:23 AM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Hi John, Sorry for the lack of clarity but you did exactly the right thing with the mascarpone and the asparagus. I don't know much about ramps and didn't know they could be so thin. I guess I'd maybe double the number.

12:49 PM  
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5:06 AM  
Blogger paperseed said...

This looks delicious! I hope to try it this weekend with friends. On reading the comments, I'm thinking that maybe the "fat scallions" are really leeks? Anyway, with ingredients like these, there is probably very few ways I could go wrong. :-)

4:33 AM  
Blogger Susan in Italy said...

Hi Paperseed, Actually I called the scallions "fat" because here in Italy I have access to scalliony-things that are bulbous at the white, root end. You should not use leeks instead but just maybe double the number of "normal" scallions.

8:39 PM  

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