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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