Monday, 7 December 2009

Polenta aux Choux Fleur et Oignons (Polenta with Cauliflower and Onions)

I was introduced to Italian food—or at least its red-sauce, Italian-American cousin—well before I was sentient. The eastern Pennsylvania town in which I spent my childhood wasn’t a particular ethnic stronghold. It was more the case that Pizza D’Oro and Steve’s Pizzeria were the only places where my family could find vegetarian, kosher-friendly food. Pizza D’Oro was probably the first restaurant I visited, initially in a bassinette, later in a high chair. I even had a dedicated outfit, the clothing in question having become indelibly covered in tomato sauce on my first outing.

Pizza D’Oro’s innovation was a daily all-you-can-eat special. It drew lots of the nearby college’s football and basketball players, who unless they drank as much as they ate, surely generated a net loss. As a spectator sport, however, it was riveting. Steve’s most memorable dish was the exotic-at-the-time white pizza, loaded with a blend of cheeses and lots of garlic.

A good fifteen years before I discovered curry, tacos or sushi, I had learned the difference between penne and ziti and could consume an improbable number of pizza slices. A move during adolescence introduced a far-wider range of eating options, but we remained loyal to Italian-style food, branching out from the old-school eateries to take in the 1990s Californian influences of individual pizzas and pesto.

I traveled a bit in Italy during my early 20s, eating well from Sicily to Bologna. The food I encountered, whether pumpkin-stuffed ravioli in Ferrara or a plate of grilled sardines in Taormina, was instinctively appealing and immensely enjoyable. It’s ridiculous to say that it tasted like home; I’m sure that neither dish has ever been served at my parents’ table. But it was unchallenging in the best sort of way, meaning that it tasted exactly as it should and exactly like what I wanted to eat.

I suspect that Italian food, defined broadly and conventionally, is an unthinking, easy fallback for a great many Americans, who, like me, lack any meaningful connection to Italy. And I also would guess that the comfort, and, most likely, complacency surrounding weeknight pasta dinners or Sunday visits to the local pizzeria means that it’s food we don’t seek to learn about it any serious way. Despite my professed love of Italian food, my repertoire doesn’t extend much beyond a few tomato-based pasta sauces, chicken cacciatore and the odd risotto. And I drink Italian red wine with great pleasure, but with little attention to what can make it distinctive and delicious.

There’s nothing innately wrong with any of this, nor am I likely to challenge the status quo in any more than a dilettantish fashion. For as long as I continue to live in Paris, a hands-on study of Italian cuisine doesn’t present itself as the most obvious of projects. And I also wonder whether there isn’t something I can do in the kitchen which fits more naturally with my background, experiences and day-to-day influences. And yet, in a world where instinctive pleasures are hard to come by, it seems almost perverse not to investigate whether the childlike joy I get when eating a slice of really good pizza or even a simple bowl of gnocchi can somehow be replicated, magnified and, eventually, shared.

All this out-of-character philosophizing was prompted by an improbably delicious bowl of braised vegetables served over soft polenta.

Polenta with Cauliflower and Onions
adapted from Jack Bishop’s
Complete Italian Vegetarian Cookbook
serves 2 to 3 generously
Total time 40 minutes; Active time 25 minutes

This cookbook is one of the first I bought and has remained useful even since re-adopting meat. Bishop understands that Italian cuisine celebrates vegetables, starches, legumes and cheese, and that combining them well can make for a wholly satisfying meal.

1 cup medium-grind cornmeal
Olive oil
1 medium onion
1 -2 cloves garlic
1 small cauliflower
1 can whole tomatoes
Fresh rosemary (optional)
Red pepper flakes/dried chili (optional)
Fresh Pecorino Romano or Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese

Bring four cups of salted water to boil in a lidded pot. Lower heat to medium and pour in polenta in a slow, continuous stream, stirring constantly. Continue stirring for another 1-2 minutes as the polenta comes back to a boil and begins to thicken. Lower the heat to a very gentle simmer and cover. Stir every 5-10 minutes. While the polenta will appear cooked after only 10-15 minutes, optimal taste and texture are only achieved after 30-35 minutes.

Once the polenta is simmering, begin the sauce by heating a thin film of olive oil in a sauté pan. Slice the onion thinly and add, cooking on a medium heat until tender and lightly-coloured, about 10 minutes. Chop the garlic and add during the last minute or two of cooking. Add salt and pepper to taste.

Trim the leaves from the cauliflower. Remove and discard the core and stalk and cut or break the florets into bite-sized pieces. If using rosemary, strip the needles from one branch and chop finely.

Add the tinned tomatoes and their juices to the pan, crushing gently with a wooden spoon. Add rosemary and chili, if using. Add cauliflower and simmer on a low heat until soft enough to break with the wooden spoon, at least 20 minutes. If necessary, add a splash of water to prevent the sauce from sticking. Adjust seasoning.

As soon as the polenta is finished, stir in a pat of butter and spoon into individual bowls. Pour over the cauliflower sauce and top with a good grating of fresh Pecorino or Parmigiano. Serve immediately.

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