Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Monello's Delightful Polentoni

Executive chef Fabrizio Cavallini with three polentas at Monello
Terrones and polentones. In Italy, these may be cast as pejoratives by their opposites. Northerners calling the southerners terrones, in reference to their agricultural roots, while the southerners refer to northerners as polentones, or big polenta, calling attention to the main culinary staple of the ages in that region. And, for the record, these are the polite explanations.

You could be called worse, jokes Guido Nistri, a self-described polentone and owner with his wife Valentina Di Pietro of Little Italy's Bencotto and now Monello, restaurants that celebrate the Northern Italian cuisine of their childhoods.

So, when offered the opportunity to hang out with executive chef--and polentone--Fabrizio Cavallini at Monello, what else would I want to learn about but polenta?

In and of itself, polenta is not at all difficult to make. Time consuming but not difficult. All you need is the corn meal -- white or yellow -- along with water and a bit of salt. When you buy the cornmeal, look for words like traditional stoneground or "Bramata" (mill) on the label. Cavallini, who was raised in Emilia-Romagna, tells me you can find these at Filippi's, Mona Lisa, and Whole Foods.

What makes polenta special is what you do with it. It's the blank canvas for far reaching flavors. From simple butter and grated Parmigiano Reggiano to elaborate sauces with long-braised meats. Take a look at this very clever and flavorful dish that will appear on Monello's Easter brunch menu:

White polenta with black truffles, two fried eggs, and mortadella
Cavallini explained to me that it's polenta, not pasta that's been the staple of Italian tables for generations. Pasta was considered food of the wealthy up until just after World War II when it became easier to manufacture and then popularized. Polenta--and rice--was always cheap and filling. Perfect for the lower classes who had few resources. Yellow polenta, said Cavallini, is by far the more popular version in Northern Italy, with stronger flavors and greater texture. White polenta is mild and, once cooked, very creamy--not unlike a childhood porridge. Neither is better or worse than the other. It's what you do with it. While the two polentas were cooking, he pulled some white polenta out of the pot and into a little bowl, added a little Parmigiano and then drizzled some syrupy saba (a grape juice reduction) over it, which is how he ate it at home as a youngster.

Traditionally, polenta was made in slanted copper pots, necessary back in the day, when polenta was cooked over an open fire in a fireplace. Today, chefs like Cavallini prefer using upright aluminum pots, which work well with a stove flame and keep the polenta from burning. Typically Cavallini uses a gallon of water to a pound of raw polenta, adding salt "a gusto"--to your liking.

Bring the water to a boil, slowly add the polenta and salt, reduce the heat, and start stirring--a whisk or a wooden spoon are equally fine. Now, you don't have to make a career of it. You can certainly walk away, but return frequently to stir and make sure nothing is sticking to the bottom of the pot. It'll take 40 to 50 minutes until it's thick and ready.

With white polenta, you also have the option of substituting water with milk, or adding butter or cream after about 25 minutes of cooking to add even more creaminess and richness to the dish.

Is a film forming along the sides of your pot while the polenta is cooking? Fabulous! Once you've poured out the polenta, peel the film off the pot and fry it up to get an Italian version of a tortilla.

I experienced several versions of Monello's polenta. The first was a porcini sauce on white polenta I'd enjoyed there before. Cavallini rehydrates dried porcini, then sautés them in olive oil with onions and garlic for about 30 minutes. Meanwhile, he's got fresh, sliced shitakes sautéing in olive oil and garlic. He adds those to the porcini to create a sauce that melds the meaty texture of the shitakes with the powerful flavor of the porcinis. Over the white polenta it goes, sprinkled with ricotta, Parmigiano, bread crumbs, and parsley.


Cavallini then pulled out a couple of sauté pans and heated up some prepared red sauce. In one pan he added sweet Italian sausages. In the other pork ribs. You could also do this with firm fish or bacalaa--or vegetables like eggplant, fennel, or zucchini.

The final polenta was a surprise--and a delightful one. White polenta topped with thick slices of gorgonzola. A feast of white--very rich, with big popping flavors from the cheese.

And, don't forget. Leftover polenta is a terrific thing to have. Pour it into ramekins or an oblong container and keep it in the refrigerator. If it's made with water, it could last for a week just fine. Take it out, slice it, and fry it. Layer it with cheese and vegetables and bake it. Coat it with olive oil, dust with grated cheese, and bake until the outside is crispy and the inside creamy. Pour a tomato sauce over it. In other words, use your imagination and your leftovers.

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Wednesday, March 13, 2013

Gaijin S'mores

One of my all-time favorite activities is spending time with chefs in their kitchens. Usually, however, they ask me to come in at the beginning of the week in early afternoon--as in when the stress of prep and service are fairly low. So, I was gobsmacked when Chef Antonio Friscia of Gaijin Noodle + Sake House in the Gaslamp invited me to come in on a Saturday night. Unfortunately, I couldn't--but we settled on a Wednesday evening. Still, what was he thinking having me in during service?

Then, he surprised me further. He called me that afternoon with homework. I was to pick up some vegetables and fruit and anything else that I would like to make into signature yakitori and signature cocktails with mixologist Lucien Conner. I brought in parsnips, tomatillos, lemongrass, calabaza squash, blood oranges, and fresh curry leaves. Totally random--really a mix of what I could find at the last minute at Sprouts and what I had in my fridge from trips to Himalayan Bazaar and H-Mart.

And, so the fun began. And it was fun. Antonio has a tight kitchen and clearly that enables him to have "gaijin" (foreigners) like me getting in the way without causing too much stress--even during a busy service.We made yakitori with parsnips and tomatillos. His marvelous sous chef, Fern Tran, showed me how to make their pork and kimchi version, and she worked with me on a magnificent green papaya, parsnip, and tomatillo salad.

I'll save the yakitori making and the salad for next week. They deserve their own piece since they're so easy and so much fun to make--something you really want to embrace for parties. And since of the best parts of being a grownup is that you can have dessert first, dessert is what we'll do today.

I stumbled in at 6 p.m. and we traded my groceries for a red Gaijin t-shirt I was to wear for the evening. Once Antonio gave my groceries the once over, he snagged the squash and some of the parsnips and disappeared with them to the kitchen. Beaming, he came out and asked me how I'd feel about making s'mores. The idea was that he'd make a puree out of the squash and parsnips and caramel with the lemongrass, then we'd toast some marshmallows over the yakatori grill and it would all go in between graham crackers. Don't you just marvel at the mind of a chef?

So, while I'm watching Lucien making some very unique cocktails with the curry leaves and blood oranges, then "helping" Fern with the yakatori and salad, Antonio was busy with his s'mores preparations.

First came the puree, made with ginger, brown sugar, sake, and a little salt. The color from the vibrant orange calabaza clearly came through and the texture was creamy and smooth while the flavor sang with the zip of ginger and the warmth of the sake.

Then came the caramel. A little brown sugar melted down and flavored with lemongrass, togarashi pepper blend, fresh ginseng, and fresh ginger.

Then it was time for kid fun. Fern, Antonio, and I stood over the grill and roasted marshmallows like rugrats at a campfire.

Once the marshmallows were sufficiently blackened, we had everything we needed for the perfect Asian fusion s'mores.

Gaijin Noodle + Sake House is located at 627 4th Ave. in San Diego's Gaslamp District.

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Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Better Than Croutons?

The world is clearly divided into two camps: sweet lovers and salty, crunchy (and fat) lovers. I admit that I fall into the second category. Chocolate and other sweets are nice to have but please don't tempt me with a really big bag of potato chips or a basket of crispy onion rings.

Or a salty, garlicky, buttery crouton. I can't bear it. I used to make them with leftover baguettes but they're pretty much gone from my diet these days. And, it's such a shame because they're perfect on salads and as soup toppers.

But, I've been finding some very cool, quite unusual replacements for them. All offer that satisfying crunch the savory fan adores, but with very different flavors. Let me introduce you to three:

Freeze Dried Corn

How smart is the new Savory Spice Shop in Encinitas to put these on the check out counter as samples. You can't not try them and once you do, well, you're hooked. Yes, they're little corn kernels, but the process of freeze drying them has rendered them light and airy and sweet as corn on the cob. They're sort of the whole kernel version of popcorn. Not only are they perfect for scattering on a salad or over soup, but they mix and match beautifully with toasted nuts and dried fruit for a trail mix or you can add them to corn muffins or corn bread or other baked goods.

Roasted Coconut Chips

Credit Mom with finding these while we were shopping at her neighborhood Trader Joe's. I've never tasted anything like these dry-roasted slips of coconut. The flavor is enhanced with just a bit of salt and sugar, fresh coconut milk, and coconut juice. I enjoyed a sprinkling of them last night on a bowl of lentils. The crunch complemented the creamy texture of the dal. But they are salad and soup worthy--not to mention ice cream or, again, trail mix.

Moong Dal

If lentils could be converted into Rice Krispies, these little puffed-up gems would snap, crackle, and pop. I randomly picked up this snack bag at Himalayan Bazaar, a little gem of an Indian market in La Mesa next door to sister restaurant Himalayan Cuisine (more about the market in next week's Local Bounty on the San Diego Magazine website). In fact, I can imagine making "dal krispy" treats with these. They're crunchy and just a bit salty and oh so light.

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