Risi e bisi

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Peas in their pods remind me of neatly planted rows of seeds, just sown in the vegetable garden. Homemade risotto made with fresh green peas is my favorite food of the spring season. This simple combination is called ‘risi e bisi’ in the Veneto. It is especially well-celebrated in the beautiful cities of Vicenza, Verona and Venice.

I look for the arrival of fresh peas at the farmers market every year. When I spot them arranged tidily in wooden crates, I snap a pod and taste the raw peas; if they are sweet, smooth and bright green,  I take handfuls of them home to make this comforting and vibrant risotto. 

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Pasta . peas . lemon and Parmigiano

This is a short story about a quick one-bowl lunch or supper, made with the greens of the season. 

Making a good meal with fresh ingredients doesn’t have to take forever. In fact in Italy as I know it, the making of a pasta can be defined as real fast food.  In my opinion the most enjoyable pranzo pastas, focus on a seasonal vegetable, combined with a fresh powdery grating of Parmesan or Pecorino cheese. Make this bowl of goodness to celebrate the joy of a new season, that goes by the poetic name primavera in Italian, which of course translates to spring. 

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Radicchio and blood orange salad

 . Radicchio Variegato di Castelfranco Inspired . 

As the month of March comes around, I notice that my enthusiasm for root vegetables has deteriorated into something similar to lukewarm acceptance.

Meanwhile, my days fade one into another covered by a blanket of quietening grey skies. Although these words might sound melancholy, they are simply a reflection of the times. Actually, I am grateful for the arrival of late winter and for the goodness of crisp, bitter leaves. This is the season for gathering ideas about the beautiful radicchio.

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Polenta . part viii . almond polenta cake

. Sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

Polenta is the new yellow and my Marostica memories 

You might been to the small town of Marostica, one of the most fascinating and romantic places in the Veneto, famous for it’s real-life chess game event. Back in my university days I had the luck to actually live there. It was here that I became friends with Claudio, a true artist and art critic, who decided to Economics to make his family happy, despite his aesthetic heart. Many years have passed since then, but I it is with Claudio that reminisce, sharing the marvelous memories of our university days.

Claudio tells me that although many are familiar with his home town, I lived the life of a “prince” with the place. Allow me explain what he meant. When I was a student, I was unable to travel home to Sicily very often to stay with my parents, so I spent many a grateful weekend at Claudio’s parents’ house. It was here that I enjoyed holidays and late nights, where Daniela cut my hair, where I made my first meringue and ate nonna Maria’s crêpes. . . .Much later, when I broke my arm and couldn’t stay alone in my apartment in Venice, I sought refuge once again to Marostica, where Claudio’s parents and sister welcomed me like a son.

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Polenta . part vii . a summary of basic recipes

This post marks the fourth and last story on polenta planned for the wintry month of February. At the outset of the project, four savory and four sweet recipes seemed the perfect, compact number for a blog collaboration. And yet, as the project comes to an end, I promise that more recipes will be added to this collection.

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Polenta . part vi . Marcella’s shortcake

. Sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

As freely translated from Italian. . .

” Today I’m in the mood for confessing the unconfessable  When I was younger (and as I write these words I mean that some time has passed since then), I completely ignored the Italian kitchen. When I began living abroad, I focused on the art, literature and culinary history of the countries I resided in, and rightly so in my opinion. As a side note to this thought, let me explain that I not only detest any form of colonialism, I also dislike the term denoted by the word “expat”. 

A lot of water has passed under the bridge since then and this is where my confession comes in! With age comes knowledge and a fair bit of nostalgia for one’s native country. It might come to you as a surprise that one of the first cookbooks I bought was “The Essentials of Italian Cooking”, published by Marcella Hazan in 1992. For those of you unfamiliar with her, Marcella is a spiritual master of “Nigella-like” proportions from another generation. 

To give a sense of place to the magnificent M.H., allow me to sketch the broad strokes of her career. Born in 1924 in Cesnatico, Italy, Marcella’s cookbooks established traditional Italian cooking in the United States as well as Great Britain. Winner of numerous prestigious culinary awards in her lifetime, gossip goes that her husband Victor Hazan (born in Italy and originating from the Big Apple) was actually the translator of her books from Italian to English.  Who were both considered quite the couple!

Now back to the story of my first cookbook. . . The polenta recipe I have chosen as my third contribution to this wintry polenta project, is from Marcella’s  “The Essentials of Italian Cooking”This authoritative volume was printed without a single photograph and yet it is truly a vision of beauty. Despite the fact that it oozes of Italian food mastery, Marcella wrote a surprisingly short chapter on desserts. 

Tucked away in the book’s last 50 pages, I found an utterly comforting, delicious, irresistibly buttery and incredibly easy dessert. According to Marcella, this shortcake was recommended to her by the famous culinary critic and chef James Beard, who found himself fascinated by it during his stay in Venice. The kind of cake capable of creating such rapture is studded with dried figs, sultana raisins and pine nuts . . . ingredients that remind one that the glorious city of Venezia was once the gateway to the Orient.

Ingredients . for 6-8 persons . for a cake tin 22 cm in diameter 

  • 140 grams coarse cornmeal for polenta 
  • 500 ml water 
  • 120 grams fine wheat flour
  • 25 ml extra virgin olive oil
  • a pinch of sea salt 
  • 125 grams granulated sugar
  • 50 grams pine nuts 
  • 50 grams sultana raisins
  • 115 grams dried figs . sliced thin
  • 30 grams unsalted butter 
  • 5 grams unsalted butter for the cake tin 
  • 1 whole egg
  • 2 tablespoons of crushed fennel seeds 

Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius, fan on. Smear the cake tin in with butter. Sprinkle it lightly in with flour, then shake out any excess left in the tin. Bring the water to a boil in a heavy-bottomed pan. Turn down the heat to medium and pour the cornmeal in a thin stream, while stirring constantly with a wooden spoon.  Once the cornmeal is incorporated, allow it to thicken for about 15 seconds, then remove it from the heat. 

Add the sugar, pine nuts, raisins, figs, butter, egg and fennel seeds to the cornmeal. Mix thoroughly to combine, then add the flour and stir into a batter. Pour the batter into the cake tin, leveling the top with a spatula. Place the cake tin on the upper shelf of the oven and bake it 45-50 minutes, or until golden and baked in the middle. 

Remove the shortcake from the oven. While still warm, loosen its sides with a knife and turn it over on a plate. Allow the cake to cool before serving. Marcella recommends serving it with whipped cream!

This shortcakes keeps well if covered 3-4 days. 

Sincerely, Biagio .

author of gloggtheblog.com ”

Notes 

Fennel seeds are quite intense in flavor. The amount recommended in the original recipe can be decreased or simply replaced with a milder aromatic like lemon zest.

Polenta . part v . Veneto-inspired pasticcio with mushrooms

Ask anyone from the Veneto, and they will tell you that mushrooms are as essential to  winter  as golden cornmeal itself. It is fitting that a polenta-inspired recipe includes two traditional ingredients, that fit together like the perfect married couple.

Before moving on to the recipe, allow me to tell you a bit about the Italian word pasticcio. This term is most readily translated by the culinary terms pie, pastry or even casserole.   A pasticcio is used in the Veneto to describe any type of layered, oven-baked dish made from pasta or other grains. A savory pasticcio invariably includes layers of cooked vegetables, thick sauces or both. Last but not least, it almost always involves the use of dairy.

This dish takes some time to make, so find a meditative moment to slow cook. If you need some kitchen encouragement, just imagine aromatic mushrooms layered between creamy layers of polenta, laced with ground white pepper. Add melting Parmigiano cheese and butter to the story and an amber-colored ode to comfort food is born.

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Polenta . part iv . quince marmalade cake

. Sweet polenta ideas from Biagio d’Angelo . 

As freely translated from Italian. . .

” Many objects of the senses go apparently unnoticed during childhood and adolescence, or so it seems.  Over time, memories play an interesting part on experience, and ingredients of the past take on a different meaning. To tell you the truth, I have had a special relationship with an unassuming fruit, namely the quince. 

My mother adored them! I remember well how she would avidly work in the kitchen with my father to make quince marmalade and the famous Sicilian “cotognata”, a thick sweet paste preserved in decorative shapes. I also remember how my brother and I looked woefully at the seemingly endless supply of both, because honestly we didn’t like either . . . they were perhaps too sweet and sticky for our youthful taste in food.

But time has changed all that. When I happened upon some fresh quince at the market (an unusual sight in Brazil, I assure you), despite their exorbitant price, I had to take some home.  I dedicated my quince acquisition to the making of a polenta cake, adapted from a recipe by Irina Georgescu. This dessert combines two very popular Romanian ingredients. It makes for a beautifully, moist cake which is neither too sweet or too rich. Lina’s recipe is beyond delicious and  I know my mother would love it. Too bad we are so far away from each other in the middle of a pandemic. . . 

Ingredients for the batter . for a cake tin 18cm in diameter 

  • 200 grams of unsalted butter 
  • 150-200 grams of granulated or raw cane sugar
  • 3 large eggs 
  • 200 grams finely ground almonds 
  • 100 grams fine cornmeal for polenta
  • 25 ml rapeseed oil

For the quince marmalade 

  • 1 quince . approximately 400 grams 
  • 200 ml water
  • 75 grams sugar 
  • 50 ml honey

For the syrup

  • The juice of two oranges . approximately 350-400 ml 

Prepare the cake tin by rubbing it generously on all sides and bottom with unsalted butter, or simply cover it with a piece of well-fitting parchment paper. Preheat the oven to 170 degrees Celsius, with the fan on.

To make the marmalade, wash the quince, then peel it and remove the seeds as well as the core. Slice the fruit into cubes. Bring the fruit, water, honey and sugar to a boil in a sauce pan at medium heat. Allow the fruit to simmer until the quince is very soft and the sugars have thickened, about 20 minutes. Smash the fruit with a fork until it looks like coarse apple sauce, then set it aside.

Meanwhile, to make the syrup, simmer the orange juice five minutes in a sauce pan at medium heat, stirring occasionally. Then set aside.Prepare the cake batter as follows.

Toast the almonds, then grind them into a fine powder. Cut the butter into a cubes. In a mixer or a food processor, mix the sugar and butter two-four minutes into a smooth cream. With the machine running, add one egg at a time until they are assimilated. To finish the batter, stir the ground almonds, cornmeal and rapeseed oil until just incorporated into the butter mixture.

Spoon the quince marmalade one the bottom of the cake tin, then pour in the batter. Bake the cake 50-55 minutes, or until cooked when tested with a fork or a cake skewer. Remove the cake from the oven and allow it to cool ten minutes. Tip the cake onto a platter. Warm the orange syrup, then carefully prick holes all around the cake with a skewer. Pour the syrup over the top of the quince marmalade and serve the cake while still warm. If you have any leftovers (which you might not haha), warm the cake in a preheated oven at 150 degrees Celsius for about 5 minutes, before bringing it to the table. 

Sincerely, Biagio .

author of gloggtheblog.com ”

 

Polenta . part iii . “pizza gialla” revisited

Six years have passed since I first wrote a blog about polenta. The time spent writing the original looks  like the pages of a faded diary. The first version of this recipe came about by chance. A friend of mine was intent upon avoiding wheat, but simply could not stop dreaming of pizza.  The thought of a golden, crispy polenta crust, burnt perfectly around the edges by the flames of an open fireplace came immediately to mind.  This is how the idea and the name for “pizza gialla” was born.

It took a while to figure out how to emulate a pizza-like crust with polenta. That being said, the deliciousness of grilled polenta comes very close to the kind of comfort found in the pizza experience. Even though polenta stays soft in the middle, and cannot imitate the chewiness a slow-rise wheat dough can, the finished result is a perfect stand-in to the original.

As part of the polenta project I am engaging in at the moment, I tested my original recipe. A simplified version of the pizza gialla recipe I published in 2014, can be found below.

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Fig and pine nut zaleti : Veneto-inspired biscotti

In the last few years, I find myself coming back more and more to my friend Luisa’s vast kitchen and gardening wisdom . Our exchanges on family memories fixed in the Veneto countryside, has led to a renewed fascination for a simple ingredient, namely cornmeal. When not consulting my mother’s handwritten recipe notes on the subject of food, I turn the pages of cookbook favorites for culinary inspiration. By the way, I readily admit I adore books, old, new and out of print. . . In the name of research, it makes for the perfect excuse to collect printed wisdom on food and other essentials in life. . .

The list of some of my favorite books on Italian cooking,  particularly of the Veneto, are listed below in my notes. Like old diaries, my books are often dog-eared and blemished by the signs of time; others are filled with pencil-written notes, recording various changes or observations about the original cooking instructions.

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