I grew up in northern Italy surrounded by Renaissance architecture and mysterious Venetian works of art. I experienced childhood in the romantic countryside and dreamt of becoming a writer. In my teens I filled my first notebooks with philosophical thoughts and poems, interwoven with recipes. My mind and my pen wandered as I sat at a white baroque-style desk, gazing at the purple Alps from my bedroom window. I soaked up the Italian way of life effortlessly, where food, people and culture are so closely interwoven. I learned how to cook from my mother, while living in a part of the world where grilled polenta and risotto are an essential part of weekly homemade meals. Cooking from scratch came naturally at our house and the kitchen was the center of a vivid social life.
My idyllic Italian past forms the foundation for a rich legacy of shared family recipes. Cooking is the constant factor in my life and I have written about food, culture and society for as long as I can remember. My love of the kitchen, for the simple beauty of the changing seasons and for sitting down at the table with friends and family, are habits I take with me wherever I go. In the course of my travels, I have come to realize that cooking is an inspiring activity appreciated by all. To my mind, exchanging food brings the world together. It is what we all have in common, no matter which culture or country we come from.
As of this week I am an official contributor to Jamie Magazine in the Netherlands. In this honorable role, I will be writing about subject matters of importance such as the Food Revolution, Mr. Oliver’s mission on food education as well as thoughts of local and global culinary interest. My own recipes and food photos will be an integral part of this new adventure. Since every first is important, I based my introductory publication upon a memory that strikes a deep personal chord, namely on the subject of the soothing comfort of polenta. This traditional food tells an important story of my mother’s life, and of her countless hours in the kitchen with her best friend Melia in the years that we lived in the countryside of Caldogno.
Dreaming back to those times, I share the recipe for polenta as I know it. After testing elaborately for days on this post, I ultimately baked an untraditional “pizza gialla”, with a lightly crispy yellow cornmeal crust. Now that the cooking, testing, photographing and writing are complete, I think I’ll go out and look for a white baroque-style writing desk, as a reminder of days long ago in the Veneto. My Mom would like that.
- 250 grams of coarse cornmeal for polenta
- 1,25 liter of water
- 2 teaspoons of sea salt
- 30 ml extra virgin olive oil
- one red onion
- three sprigs of rosemary
- 175 grams of finely grated
- Parmigiano Reggiano cheese
Prepare a double boiler by filling up a pan half-full with water and putting it on medium heat to simmer. Mix the cornmeal with 500 ml of cold water in a pitcher and stir it well with a whisk. Peel the red onion and cut it into a fine dice.. Pick the leaves of rosemary and chop them very fine with a sharp knife. Heat the olive oil in a pan that fits into the double boiler and sauté the red onion with the rosemary until the onion softens and becomes lightly golden. Add 750 ml water and the sea salt into the cooking onions and bring the water to boiling point. Pour the cornmeal from the pitcher into the pan and stir it continuously for five minutes, making sure to scrape often along the sides of the pan. As soon as the cornmeal starts to bubble like lava, transfer the pan into the double boiler. Allow the polenta to cook slowly fifteen minutes, stirring it regularly. Turn the heat off and add half of the grated Parmigiano Reggiano. Taste the polenta for the right balance between the saltiness of the cheese and the aromatic flavor of the rosemary. Add more of both if needed. Add freshly ground pepper to accent the flavor of the other ingredients. Cover the polenta with a lid for five minutes. This will allow it to cook through a bit, while remaining soft and moist.
Meanwhile cut baking paper to fit a fluted tart form about 27cm in width. Brush the baking paper with olive oil. Scoop about 350 grams of cooked polenta into each tart form and spread it quickly and evenly to form a crust. Peel two red onions and cut them in half. Place the cut side down on a board and cut them into paper-thin half moons. Press the onion slices on top of the warm polenta, pushing down slightly. Brush the newly formed red onion crust with olive oil and sprinkle the remaining grated Parmigiano over the top. Allow the polenta to cool completely before chilling it one hour in the refrigerator. (The crust also freezes perfectly).
For the pizza gialla
Preheat the oven to 200 degrees Celsius. Bake the polenta crust 15 minutes. Remove it from the oven. Turn it over carefully with two spatulas so that the red onion layer is on the bottom of the tart form, or simply flip it over onto a baking platter. This will make for a doubly crunchy crust. Spread 125 ml of crushed San Marzano tomatoes over the polenta crust and return it to the oven for 15 more minutes. Increase the oven temperature to 215 degrees Celsius. Take the pizza out of the oven and add grilled seasonal vegetables or torn chunks of buffalo mozzarella over the baked tomato layer. Bake the pizza at high heat just one last time for five minutes. Serve the pizza gialla warm with a simple salad and a glass of Merlot from the Veneto.
For a pine nut and garlic pizza gialla
75 grams of pine nuts or almonds
two cloves of fresh garlic
24 leaves of fresh basil
50 grams of sun-dried tomatoes
10 ml extra virgin olive oil
Make a lovely variation on the rosemary and onion pizza gialla by stirring finely ground pine nuts, the finely torn leaves of fresh basil and one clove of minced garlic into the polenta once it has cooked on the double boiler. Follow the above-mentioned explanation for preparing the tart forms and chilling the polenta. Bake the pizza fifteen minutes without a topping as explained above. Add crushed tomatoes if so desired and bake the pizza another fifteen minutes. Remove the pizza from the oven. Increase the oven temperature to 215 degrees and top the pizza gialla with 50 grams of sun-dried tomatoes, paper thin slices of one garlic clove, a drizzle of extra virgin olive oil, a handful of fresh basil leaves and some freshly sliced cherry tomatoes. Return the pizza to the oven for five minutes and serve it with dry-roasted pine nuts, almonds or sunflower seeds for a nice crunch.
This recipe makes for a flavorful vegan polenta pizza that goes well with grilled pumpkin.
For a yellow pepper and olive pizza gialla
50 grams of purple Taggia or Nicoise olives
the zest of one orange
6 sprigs of fresh thyme
the leaves of three sprigs of fresh oregano
a sprinkling of dried red pepper
one yellow pepper
three anchovy filets
Remove the pits from the olives and chop them quite fine. Zest the peel of one organic orange. Pick the leaves of the fresh thyme. Add the olives, orange zest, thyme and dried red pepper to the warm polenta. Follow the above-mentioned explanation for preparing the polenta tart forms. Wash the yellow pepper and remove the core and its seeds. Slice it in half and cut it into thin strips. Arrange the yellow pepper decoratively around the polenta crust and brush the top with olive oil. Bake the pizza fifteen minutes at 200 degrees. Turn the pizza over carefully with two spatulas and return it to the tart form, or simply flip it over onto a baking platter so that the peppers are on the bottom. Brush the top layer with olive oil. Add crushed tomatoes if so desired or top the upper layer with thinly sliced fennel bulb. Bake the polenta fifteen more minutes. Meanwhile chop the anchovies very fine and pick the leaves of oregano. Increase the oven temperature to 215 degrees. Remove the pepper-olive pizza gialla from the oven. Sprinkle the anchovies over the top and grill it just five more minutes. Serve the pizza warm with a mixed herb salad and dream of the Provence.
The pizza gialla trio make wonderful appetizers and are a meal in themselves. Serve them with steamed artichokes or grilled asparagus when in season.
The next Jamie Magazine blog posts re-written from Dutch into English won’t always appear in chronological order. My English language versions will invariably be more elaborate than the Dutch versions published on the jamiemagazine.nl website.
Special thanks to the editorial team at Jamie Magazine for this wonderful new task.