Saturday, March 26, 2011

Risotto and Polenta

I went home for a vacation in 2003 and was very excited to see my family again. One thing that I really enjoyed doing for my family was to cook for them. It was almost required of me to provide them with a snack every afternoon which I happily accepted as my sole responsibility. It was April and my nephews and nieces were on their summer break so it was always a busy time at the house with kids coming and going. They enjoyed the plethora of cakes and cookies that I baked for them but one of my outright failures was cooking spaghetti that ironically would make an Italian proud of me. Spaghetti is a dish that is very common as a snack, not a main dish and is considered an essential on birthdays and special occasions. It has to do with the noodles being long just like any rice or bean thread noodle that it is considered a symbol of long life. It even goes as far as spaghetti being eaten as a viand with rice and yeah, I’m guilty of this as well. To take it even further, they sell spaghetti in a packet just like you would instant noodles. So what was it that put me in a bad light to my nephews and nieces? To them, my Italian version was too sour. The local version of spaghetti sauce uses condensed milk to sweeten the tomato cum ketchup based sauce that is littered  with slices of hotdogs and very generously topped with grated American cheese. This is very common in fast food places and in small stalls that sell spaghetti or in reality, spaghetti colored red with ketchup. It has a certain appeal to it and is definitely an acquired taste but this was the type of spaghetti they have come to know. My cousin Estela is one who can make this dish so well even I will fight my nephews off the table for it. Well, after my spaghetti fiasco (officially the second fiasco as the first involved food poisoning and visits to the hospital), I delegated spaghetti making to my cousin, who incidentally is another great cook in the family. 

Polenta and risotto are two recent discoveries of mine and I wish now that I had tried them a long time ago had I bothered to actually read through Sophia Loren’s cookbook which I've had for 10 years. My Mom would have loved them but sadly, she is no longer with us. It would also be interesting to introduce risotto to my nephews as growing up in the 70s, my Aunt would sit us cousins for Saturday morning breakfast and plate us a bowl of rice dredged with freshly brewed coffee. Yup, you read it right, rice and coffee folks. It was so good we always asked for seconds. Well, I did anyway. No wonder we were running around all day. It must have been the caffeine in the coffee amped risotto-like breakfast that powered us. On Sunday afternoons, my Mom would also make us rice porridge cooked in coconut milk with bits of coconut, yams and bananas and sweetened with our local raw brown sugar. We had a fresh supply of coconut courtesy of the coconut trees dotting our backyard. Oh, the good old days. Another favorite of mine was a yellow corn porridge that my Mom used to make. Sweetened with brown sugar and also dotted with strings of young coconut, it was really a treat for the whole family. It would take my Mom most of the Sunday afternoon to make this giant batch of porridge over a wood-fed stove but at the end of the day, the whole family gathered to eat and everything was at peace. 

In loving tribute to both my Mom and my Aunt, I’m presenting one of my favorite risotto recipe and a polenta dish I concocted recently. Both recipes relied heavily on Sophia Loren’s recipe from her cookbook Sophia Loren's Recipes and Memories. Coincidentally, her cookbook was a testament to the cooks in her family mainly her sister and her mother. In my case, it is my Mom Lagrimas, my Aunt Puri and my cousin Estela.

*Risotto Basics - adapted

Heat the oil or butter in a medium sized heavy pan. Add the flavorings such as garlic, onion, or herbs as stated in the recipe. Sauté briefly. Add the rice and cook until it is opaque. This will take about 30 seconds. At this point, you may add the white wine if called for until it gets absorbed and the mixtures is almost dry.
For the liquid, a good broth is needed and added gradually to the rice. Keep the broth in a separate pot on a low simmer and with a ladle, add to the rice ½ to 1 cup at a time. Stir the liquid into the rice and let it simmer while stirring. Continue this process until the rice is cooked but not mushy (al dente as with pasta).
Depending on the recipe used, cheese or other seasonings are added and then served at once. 

*Risotto ai Asparagi e Formaggio/Risotto with Asparagus and Cheese – adapted

Copyright 2011 LtDan'sKitchen blogs
2 lbs asparagus
4 to 5 tbsp olive oil
1 medium onion, minced
1 ½ cup Arborio rice
Freshly ground pepper
¼ lb cheese grated (I prefer Grana Padano, Pecorino Romano or Asiago)

1. Trim away the tough
    ends of the asparagus.
    If you are not sure how to do this, hold the cut end of the asparagus
    with one hand and grasping the tip end with the other, bend until it  
    snaps at its natural weak point. Do the same for the rest of the 
    spears. Cut the stalks into 1 ½ inch pieces.
2. Bring a medium pot of water to a boil. Add a tsp of salt and drop in 
    the asparagus. Cook for 30 seconds and with a slotted ladle, fish  
    them out into a bowl with ice water. This will shock the asparagus  
    and stop them from cooking and will also help keep their green color.
    Drain and set aside. Keep the cooking water used to cook the
3. Warm the oil in a pan and add the onion. Sauté until it is softened but
    not browned. Add the rice and cook until opaque and the oil has been 
    absorbed. Add salt and pepper to taste.
4. Gradually add the reserved asparagus cooking water as described 
    above. Stir until rice is tender. I suggest adding a bit of chicken stock 
    as the asparagus cooking water has a very mild flavor. Stir in the  
    asparagus and half the cheese. Serve immediately and top with the  
    remaining cheese.
*Polenta Basics - adapted

Copyright 2011 LtDan'sKitchen blogs
9 cups water
2 tbsp salt (use less)
3 cups medium-grind Italian polenta or cornmeal

Bring the water to a boil in a large pot. Add the salt and lower the heat to medium, and gradually add the polenta by sprinkling it into the water from your hand, stirring the mixture constantly with a long-handled wooden spoon. Be patient as you add the polenta or it will be lumpy.
Continue to cook and stir the mixture constantly; if a lump does appear, try to crush it against the side of the pot. After about 30 minutes the polenta will be quite thick and will form large bubbles. The mixture is done when it begins to pull away from the side of the pot as you stir.

*Polenta Pasticiatta/Polenta with Butter and Cheese – adapted

1 recipe polenta
6 tbsp unsalted butter
1 lb thinly sliced semi-soft cheese (mozzarella or fontina)

1. Prepare the polenta according to Polenta basics. Pour the polenta 
    into a wooden board or a large baking sheet to a thickness of ½ inch.
2. Preheat the oven to 375°F. Liberally butter a 9x12 inch baking dish.  
    Melt the remaining butter.
3. When the polenta is completely cool and firm, cut it into slices ½ 
    inch wide. Arrange a layer of polenta slices on the bottom of the 
    baking dish. Cover the polenta with the cheese and pour some of the
    melted butter over. Continue to layer the polenta, cheese, and  
    butter, until the ingredients are used up, finishing with a very lightly
    buttered layer of polenta.
3. Bake for 20 to 30 minutes, until the cheese is melted and the top is  
    browned. At the table, cut the polenta into square servings.

You can create numerous variations by adding or substituting ingredients such as tomatoes, hard-boiled eggs, cooked ground meat, ham or prosciutto, and so on to the cheese layer. I used a combination of Italian sausages, roasted sweet peppers and pesto sauce.

*Loren, Sophia. Sophia Loren's Recipes and Memories. GT Publishing Corp. New York:1998

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