Monthly Archives: March 2010

Train Reading

This weekend, I’m actually leaving the city and heading south on the train. I’ve packed some reading for the trip. Sometimes I feel like a small child whose mother needs to make sure that s/he has enough toys to keep him/her occupied, snacks, and other goodies (in this case Pandora) so that there’s smooth sailing all the way to the destination.

After having finished Michael Pollan’s In Defense of Food, I’m now on The Omnivore’s Dilemma. I know that this is the reverse of the order in which they were written, but I sort of think that they make more sense going in this direction. Of course, the former book is also shorter, which is what really what made me tackle it first. After reading it, I went through my cupboards to see if anything that I had in it fit the guidelines that Mr. Pollan had laid down. All in all, I did pretty well.
Truthfully, I’d really have to go back to my great-grandmothers’ generation to meet his criteria. From some of the recipes that we do have from my grandmothers, I know that they had already embraced using processed food products in some of the dishes that they made. In my cupboard, I probably have quite a few things that they didn’t eat, as they were from the Midwest. My pasta stash, the bags of cornmeal for polenta, the various lentils, olive oil, and many of the other spices and seasonings that I use are not likely the same items that they had in their pantries.
I know that I don’t collect my own eggs, bake my own bread, or kill my own animals for meat, which they did even in that generation. At the same time, I’m further away from my parents in terms of how few pre-packaged foods I do eat. This isn’t to be critical of them, as that’s how I ate growing up as well. I’m curious to see where The Omnivore’s Dilemma takes this discussion of factory farming and how our mass food production works. Having kept track of many of the food issues we face for quite a while, and after seeing Food, Inc., I’m not sure that there will be too many things that he’ll discuss of which I’ll be completely unaware.
Buon appetito!

Polenta with Sausage Sauce

Mother Nature is taunting us. Last weekend was warm with lots of sunshine, and it looked like the weather had turned a corner into spring. Then, it turned cloudy, cold, and very rainy. Fortunately, this winter I got on a kick to try to perfect my polenta-making skills. I’ve always loved eating polenta, but the few times I had tried to make it, I didn’t get very good results. It was always sort of o.k. tasting. What I wanted was what I’ve eaten in several restaurants: silky smooth with a hint of body, full corn flavor wrapping itself creamily around your tongue. Good polenta can be very seductive.
It seems like others had the same idea. Mark Bittman’s Minimalist column in the NY Times had a recipe for making polenta several weeks ago: “Taking the Fear out of Polenta.” Like risotto, polenta is one of those dishes that scares people off from trying to make it, when, in reality, it is quite simple to do once one learns the technique and appreciates that this is a dish in which the ingredients really do matter.
I bought the basic grain at my local gourmet grocery store: Bob’s Red Mill Coarse Ground Cornmeal. I also tested out another version that I found at the Greenmarket. This last version is a fruit-and-veg take on nose-to-tail eating. I bought the cornmeal from the folks from whom I usually buy corn in the summertime. From there, it was a matter of following the instructions.
After 15-20 minutes or so, I was left with a a loose, creamy dish. I’m not sure if the Greenmarket cornmeal was ground less coarsely than the version I bought in the store, but I did feel it could use more liquid or more time on the stove. I wasn’t entirely happy with the results, but I was getting closer to what I wanted.

When I was in Virginia over the Christmas holidays, a friend of mine had made Tuscan Chicken with Polenta, which he had gotten from his stand-by cookbook, and one of my old favorites, The New Basics. Some of the recipes are too heavy for me, and my friends and I have a running thing about how much butter and cream are used in some of the books that these two ladies put together. That said, however, I wondered if that was just what the polenta recipe for which I was looking required.

Their basic polenta recipe calls for using milk and butter instead of just water. To hold back on the fat and calories a bit, I used one cup of whole milk and two cups of low-fat milk and skipped the addition of the melted butter at the end. The result was just what I wanted. It was luxurious without being heavy. I think that this is the version of this recipe that I’ll keep in my files.

As you can see, I got a bit too excited about trying the dish with the sauce I’d cooked for it and almost missed getting a photo. I’d eaten something similar when I lived in Italy. It was a polenta with a Ragu Bolognese. Not that I mind making that sauce, but I sort of wanted a different set of flavors. Mark Bittman had made a simple cooked sausages and added sliced basil to his version.

At the Greenmarket, I found these Italian sausages, which I thought would be perfect for building my sauce. I opted for the sweet style so that I could better control the flavorings I wanted to put with this dish. What I had in mind was a rich tomato base with meat as a secondary component and some herbs also playing a key supporting role.

I still feel like I’m working on getting the sauce just right, so I haven’t written up an exact recipe yet. I think it sort of got there, but I’m not completely satisfied with it. If you would like to try, I just cooked up onion, garlic, sausage, tomatoes both whole and chopped, dried parsley, and dried sage. Perhaps I need to add a little hot sausage with the sweet, but I’ll have to figure that out the next time I make this.
First of all, I’ll need to clean off the splatters from my kitchen cabinet, as while it was simmering this sauce definitely had range! In the end, I think that this sauce was a great pairing with the polenta. It is sort of brothy with deep tomato flavor and the meat not overpowering it. The taste of the polenta base comes through with each bite in a perfect complement to the sauce.
Buon appetito!

Easy-Bake Ovens, Rose Gray, and Twice-Baked Potatoes

These three things might just seem like random stream-of-conscious musings on the state of the universe, but, in reality, they are a few things that have appeared in the food press over the course of the last few weeks. They sort of don’t really go together on the surface, so I’ll see if I can link up everything.
The inventor of the East-Bake Oven died more than a week ago. He was also the inventor of the Spirograph. What do these things have in common? I wasn’t allowed to have either one of them as a child. On the blog posts that lament the inventor’s passing, I’ve found out I am not the only one who has a latent semi-bitterness at not owning one of these baking devices. My mother, and apparently other people’s as well, felt that I had a real oven with which to put together real cakes and cookies. She didn’t understand the appeal. Sorry, Mom, this just goes right up there with things that had to be played with at other kids’ houses, although for some reason, I never did get to try it anywhere else either. I missed out on a childhood icon for my generation. Of course, this had nothing to do with my later love for baking.
One of the founders of the River Cafe in London passed away last week. Rose Gray had an amazing background, which I’ve only just learned about from reading her obituary. She and her partner, Ruth Rogers, created a celebrated restaurant and mentor some of Britain’s current crop of culinary superstars, including Jamie Oliver. They also published a series of River Cafe cookbooks. While I long-since got rid of those from my library, I still have a great respect for the fact that they were designed to get folks to appreciate the Italian sensibility for preparing flavorful, uncomplicated meals with wonderful seasonal ingredients. Someday, when my bank balance and work schedule allow it, I would really love to be able to eat at their restaurant.
The final thread in this chain is the couple of articles that I came across this week about twice-baked potatoes. With St. Patrick’s Day around the corner, I think the great spud is calling my name. It’s also getting to be spring-like weather, but we haven’t seen all the new produce that also comes with the change of seasons. Everything is still very winter-oriented with root vegetables prominent at the Greenmarket.
I’ve overlooked this dish for far-too-long, I realize. I first learned to make it when I lived in London after college. With ingredients as basic as potatoes, cheddar cheese, butter, sour cream, salt, pepper, and chives, it was perfect for a poor student’s budget. Paired with a side salad, it is a filling, flavorful, and simple dinner. This is why I was surprised to see it featured in print. Here are two versions that I made:
My version of Twice-Baked-Potatoes, with ham added

Eggs in baked potatoes from Yum Sugar (who took it from Real Simple)
The East-Bake Oven served as inspirations to thousands of young home cooks and likely encouraged the fledgling careers of many. I can’t say that I would have ever tried to bake a potato in those toy cooking units, so maybe that’s why I’ve always looked for ways to prepare tasty food in a real appliance. The potatoes elevate a simple, yet tasty vegetable to new heights, much in line with how Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers wanted their public to see how food could be prepared at a time when British food was still miles away from where it has moved to today.
Buon appetito!