Wednesday, December 04, 2013

Guest Post: In Pursuit of Good (Enough) by Jeannie Marshall

Photo by Sean Ganann
In case you weren't aware, I'm a huge Jeannie Marshall fan. I reviewed her first book, Outside the Box: Why Our Children Need Real Food Not Food Products way back when and we've been periodically in touch ever since. A little while back I invited her to consider a guest post here and she graciously obliged with a topic near and dear to my heart - embracing simple. (And if you'd like, her book is about to be re-released in the US under the title, The Lost Art of Feeding Kids: What Italy Taught Me About Feeding Kids, or you can order the original book from Canada)

Now that food is such a hot topic, it seems we’ve all become amateur nutritionists and aspiring gourmet chefs. While I’m happy that people are paying attention to their dinner, I’m starting to feel just a little oppressed. It seems that every cook with a food blog produces beautiful and complicated meals perfectly plated and expertly photographed. The profusion of these sites makes it feel like you have to make something unique every single night. The food industry, with its constantly changing products and new taste sensations, also fuels a drive for the “new.” All this is turning what was a fun, easy going part of my day into something competitive, even if the only person I’m competing with is myself. Of course, the explosion of food blogs and the general rise in interest in food and all its issues is a wonderful thing, but it’s exhausting if every dinner has to compare with something prepared by an expert.

I’ve lived in Rome for more than a decade now. And you might think the pressure to cook fantastic and gorgeous meals would be enormous. But it’s in Rome that I really learned to cook simple meals, with few but very high-quality ingredients (think of the basic tomato sauce: chopped tomatoes, a pinch of salt and some olive oil left to simmer. If you want to liven it up, you add an onion.) I’ve also learned to develop a repertoire of seasonal meals and this is what makes cooking and eating in Italy such a pleasure. Repetition is good. Romans have long looked forward to gnocchi on Thursdays and salt cod with chick peas on Fridays. My own winter menus consist of soups, beans with greens, lentil stews with meat or without, risotto with mushrooms, beef braised in wine, chicken cacciatore, pasta with roasted squash, all of it served with a heaping side dish of vegetables.

Now that Rome has finally turned cold, I made the first winter polenta. When I started cooking, my eight-year old son came in the kitchen and said: “Oh, I love polenta season.”

The first thing I did was put a pot of salted water on the stove to boil. Then I cut up a carrot and half a yellow pepper and put them on a plate with a handful of unsalted almonds so that when Nico came in to rhapsodize about polenta he might be enticed to pull up a chair, eat some raw vegetables and chat with me rather than withdrawing to the living room to sit on the carpet and yell “Mom, I’m bored.”

Then I started ripping kale leaves off their stems and soaking them in a big bowl of water to remove any loose dirt. My not-bored son actually helped me with this task, which freed me up to brown a little ground beef in a pot with a pinch of salt to extract the juices from the meat. On a whim I added a sprig of rosemary from the hearty little plant on the kitchen balcony. When the meat lost its raw red look, I dumped in a jar of crushed tomatoes, another pinch of salt, two bruised garlic cloves and a whole onion cut in half. I gave it all a stir and turned it down to a slow simmer. Then I cooked the vegetables in a little boiling water. By then the big pot of water was boiling and I started slowly adding cornmeal and whisked. I followed Marcela Hazan’s instructions but not completely. I let the cornmeal flow into the water a little faster than she suggests, but made sure it didn’t clump. I had to turn down the polenta briefly while I drained the vegetables, but it was fine. Just as my arm was getting tired from the stirring my husband arrived home from work. Nico had saved him a carrot stick and a few almonds.

I gave him enough time to pour us both a glass of red wine and then handed him a wooden spoon. Nico set the table and filled glasses with water. I poured olive oil and a squeeze of lemon over the kale and took it to the table. James plopped ungainly mounds of polenta into three bowls and I slopped sauce on, all the while grateful for the absence of photographers and celebrity chefs. Then I grated some parmesan cheese over top.

As the bowls hit the table, Nico lit the candles and James found Miles Davis on the iPod. After a few initial yums, and other remarks about how we’ve all been missing polenta since last winter, we talked about work and school and Nico’s new interest in the trumpet and the French horn.

It was simple and very good food. I wouldn’t hesitate to serve it to a guest if one were to suddenly knock on my door. It wasn’t elegant or unusual, but it was more than good enough to lure us to the table, to enjoy each other and to get on with the talking, which to me is the really nourishing part of the meal.


(BTW Marcella Hazan has a no-stir method for polenta, which is almost as good as the stir, stir, stir method.)

Polenta – adapted from Essentials of Classic Italian Cooking by Marcella Hazan

7 cups of water
1 tablespoon of salt
1 2/3 cups of course-grained yellow cornmeal (not instant polenta or fine cornmeal).

1. Bring the water to a boil in a large, heavy pot.

2. Add the salt, keep the water boiling at medium-high heat, and add the cornmeal in a very thin stream, letting a fistful of it run through nearly closed fingers. You should be able to see the individual grains spilling into the pot. The entire time you are adding the cornmeal, stir it with a whisk, and make sure the water is always boiling. (I allowed the cornmeal to go in a little faster, but I kept up the whisking so it didn’t clump.)

3. When you have put in all the cornmeal, stir constantly with a wooden spoon, bringing the mixture up from the bottom, and loosening it from the sides of the pot. Continue to stir for 40 to 45 minutes. The cornmeal becomes polenta when it forms a mass that pulls cleanly away from the sides of the pot. (Mine took less time, maybe 30 minutes.)

It should be thick, firm and slightly quivery.

Then, Marcella suggests turning the polenta out into a steel bowl that has been moistened with water and letting it cool. This moulds it into a dome shape. I didn’t bother. I just scooped it from the pot into our bowls.

Simple meat sauce:

2 tbsp olive oil
½ to ¾ of a pound of ground beef (depending on how meaty you like it)
Pinch of salt
Sprig of Rosemary
1 jar (700g) of crushed tomatoes (just tomatoes, with nothing added)
Pinch of Salt
2 peeled and slightly bruised cloves of garlic
1 medium onion, peeled and sliced in half but otherwise left attached at the ends

Pour the olive oil into the bottom of a heavy saucepan. Put the ground beef in the pan and turn the heat to medium (if you have time, allow the beef to come to room temperature before cooking it). Just as it starts to cook add a pinch of salt. Stir it around so it doesn’t stick and add the rosemary. When the meat is no longer raw looking, add the tomatoes, pinch of salt, garlic and the onion. Reduce the heat to a low, gentle simmer and stir it occasionally. * If you have time, you can first cook some chopped carrot and celery in the olive oil until they soften, then add the ground beef. I was just being lazy, and I didn’t do it. If you really have time, it is delicious with a proper ragu, but that takes a few hours of simmering. This meat sauce is quite good and quick.

Polenta makes a great base for other sauces. We like to prepare a basic tomato sauce and add some cooked mushrooms and a scoop of creamy gorgonzola. You can also serve it with beef or lamb stew and it’s lovely with chicken cacciatore.