If there’s one dish that says “winter” to me, it’s polenta. You never used to see it on menus in Italy during the summer months, but now that polenta’s become as ubiquitous as pasta in some restaurants, it wouldn’t surprise me. Still, I reserve it for the colder months when it’s as welcome as a down comforter. In the Italian cultural organization I’m part of, we hold a polenta festa each winter, where people from the community bring all sorts of dishes featuring humble cornmeal, including desserts. This year, I brought a casserole of polenta pasticciata.
If you’re scratching your head at the name, maybe the messy remainders of the casserole above will give you some clue. It’s hard to translate perfectly, but “pasticcio” in Italian means a hodgepodge, or mess, (“un bel pasticcio”, for example, would translate to “a fine mess”) so polenta pasticciata refers to a messy polenta, or one that’s mixed up with a lot of other “stuff.”
Make the polenta ahead of time and spread it out on a cookie sheet or baking pan. Let it cool, then cut into triangles (or squares or any other shape you like – remember, this is a “messy” casserole). Spread some tomato sauce on top, then layer with more polenta and more sauce.
For the record, I have never used commercially prepared tomato sauce. Maybe there are some good ones now, but I’d still rather make my own. (Well, that’s not exactly true. There was that time we went camping and bought a jar of some questionable tomato sauce).
However, my friend Michelle, of Majella Home Cooking, who’s a caterer, also cans 3,500 pounds (yes, that number’s right) of tomato sauce every summer. This is tomato sauce of a whole different category that what you buy in the store. Fortunately, she sells some of her precious jars of tomato sauce, and I bought half a dozen jars to use when I’m in a pinch. You can read about her family’s tradition of making tomato sauce here (and contact her to buy some sauce if you live anywhere near New York City.)
The sauce is just ideal as a base for any dish that requires tomato sauce, and I’ve used it straight from the jar for my eggplant parmigiana and other dishes. For this recipe though, I wanted to jazz it up a bit, so I added some sautéed crumbled sausage and another ingredient I recently discovered at the supermarket….. canned cherry tomatoes from Italy.
I’m not pushing this brand or any other. In fact, the first time I bought a can of these, it was a different brand and I can’t remember what the name was. But both times, they were flavorful and sweet and added texture to the sauce. I think they’d make a great pizza topping too.
After layering the casserole (I made three layers but it’s not writ in stone), just sprinkle some grated parmesan cheese on top.
Bake in the oven until the cheese is melted and everything is thoroughly heated. I had to set the casserole off to the side to take the picture, before the crowd lapped up every last bite.
Which is why I made a mini casserole just for me and baked it when I got home.
There’s really no recipe with exact quantities per se here. Quantities depend on how much sauce you have, how much polenta you make, how large your pan is, etc. This is the kind of dish that doesn’t have to be exact or perfect – remember it’s a pasticcio – a “hodgepodge.”
I started with about a cup and a half of polenta (I used the kind that cooks in five minutes, not the long-stirring kind) Cook according to package directions and spread on a cookie sheet. (I sometimes add half milk and half water to the polenta, and sometimes add some parmesan cheese too. It gives it more flavor. Make sure you add enough salt if you don’t use the parmesan cheese.)
Let the polenta cool, then cut into triangles or any shape you want.
Arrange a layer of the polenta triangles on the bottom of an oven proof casserole, then spread with a layer of tomato sauce.
For the tomato sauce, I used a jar of my friend Michelle’s homemade sauce (Majella Home Cooking) and added a pound of cooked and crumbled Italian sausage, plus a 14 oz. can of cherry tomatoes imported from Italy. Simmer all the sauce ingredients together for about 30 minutes before spreading on the polenta.
Spread some sauce over the polenta, then repeat two or three times, depending on how much polenta you have, how much sauce you have, and how big the casserole is. Finish with a generous sprinkling of freshly grated parmesan cheese.
Bake covered with foil (or a lid) for about 30-45 minutes, or until everything is piping hot, removing the foil the last 10 minutes.
You don’t have to travel to Rome’s Sistine Chapel to know that this magical moment when God brings Adam to life springs from the genius of Michelangelo. The Renaissance artist was an innovator in painting as well as sculpture and inspired generations of artists following him. But who would have guessed that a shopping list he wrote more than 500 years ago would serve as inspiration in New York for a memorable repast and innovative talks in the 21st century?
My passions of art and food collided recently at “Feast on Innovation,” an event held at Science House, a seven-story town house in New York City that serves to bring imaginative ideas and people together.
photo courtesy of Science House
The event was the vision of Danielle Oteri, (right) owner of “Feast on History,” a business venture that combines food and history in unique experiences around the city. The event was co-produced by Deborah Asseraf (left) of “Popcorn Productions.”
The dinner sprung forth from this 16th century shopping list written and illustrated by Michelangelo. From it, lead chef Lara O’Brien performed a little culinary archeology and designed a 5-course extravaganza for 12 lucky diners – me included!
Here’s what the above list says:
Pani dua (two bread rolls)
Un bochal di vino (a jug of wine)
Una aringa (a herring)
Una insalata (a salad)
Un quartuccio di bruscho (a quarter of dry wine)
Un piatello di spinaci (a dish of spinach)
Quatro alice (four anchovies)
Dua minestre di finochio (two dishes of fennel)
In addition to Lara, the other two chefs – Michelle DiBenedetto Capobianco and Caroline Chirichella, produced a dinner that surpassed Michelangelo’s humble list by any measure. Christian Galliani, Danielle’s husband and collaborator, and owner of “Wine for the 99,” sponsored the wines for the Michelangelo’s Feast.
Each of the chefs has her own unique back story – Lara is a producer for CBC’s “The Current” and was formerly in the restaurant business; Michelle was a lawyer in her last life and now runs a catering business, Majella Home Cooking; and Caroline is a classically trained opera singer who has sung with Marcello Giordani, and runs her own business called “Magic and Pasta.”
from left, Christian Galliani, Michelle DiBenedetto Capobianco, Caroline Chirichella and Lara O’Brien
Before dinner started though, participants were invited to a choice of several workshops dealing with innovation, from 3-D printing to branding strategy. Drinks and munchies were served, including these melt-in-your-mouth Pallote cac’e ove, an Abruzzese specialty made by Michelle, dubbed “Medici balls” for the evening, in honor of the Renaissance arts patron. Recipe at the bottom of the post.
photo courtesy of Michelle DiBenedetto Capobianco
Following the workshops, we moved down to the kitchen where the friendly and interesting group had plenty of time to get acquainted in between all the courses.
Starting with a delicious appetizer of toasted Tuscan bread with fresh smashed peas and ricotta salata. I had to work hard to keep from eating a third, knowing the bounty had just begun.
Next on tap was a lightly poached quail egg resting atop a bird’s nest of sautéed spinach. A light grating of truffles was enough to add an earthy touch.
Perhaps my favorite course of the night was this caramelized fennel and ricotta agnolotti in a carrot brodo – a unique flavor combo.
Then came a simple, but delicious course of grilled sardines and anchovy brown butter. If you’re familiar only with sardines from a can, you are short-changing yourself and need to get thee to a fish monger for fresh sardines. These were served in a puddle of olive oil, with diced tomatoes and olives scattered about.
The smell of the main course – this savory porchetta, seasoned with rosemary, thyme, garlic and wild fennel pollen was enticing and the taste more than lived up to the aroma that wafted through the house earlier in the evening.
A side dish of asparagus and Roman artichokes with pickled shallots complemented the roast perfectly.
Honey semifreddo with pignoli brittle was the sweet ending to a perfect – and unique dining experience, and left me wondering about what else is on tap at Feast on History in the future. In case you’re wondering too, click here to find out what they’ve got next on tap.
As if this evening wasn’t already special enough, Caroline broke into an aria following dessert – a fitting piece from “La Traviata” summoning fellow party goers to drink –
“Tra voi, tra voi saprò dividere il tempo mio giocondo. Tutto è follia, follia nel mondo ciò che non è piacer.” “With you, I can share all my happiest times. Everything in life which is not pleasure is foolish.”
Click on the button below to listen.
Bravo Verdi for those words and music, brava Carolina for your singing and bravi to everyone who was involved in producing an unforgettable evening at “Feast on Innovation.”
mixture: 6 cups day-old Italian bread, torn into tiny pieces (or
pulsed in the food processor); 2 cups milk; 2 eggs, lightly beaten; 1
teaspoon of salt and several grindings of fresh black pepper; 1 cup
grated Pecorino cheese; 2 tablespoon chopped Italian parsley; 1
teaspoon minced rosemary; 1 clove of garlic, minced; IF NEEDED, fine
frying: ½ cup or more of extra virgin olive oil
stewing: 4 cups Basic Homemade Tomato Sauce (see below)
the Basic Homemade Tomato Sauce: 2 (28-ounce) cans peeled whole
tomatoes, passed through a food mill or pulsed in a food processor
until smooth (or approx 2 liters tomato puree – passata
3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil; 1 large onion, finely diced; 4
cloves garlic, minced; a branch of whole fresh basil leaves; sea
salt, to taste
MAKE THE PALLOTTE:
Place the torn bread in a wide bowl, pour the milk over it & mix
well, until the bread is well-moistened by the milk (the bread
shouldn’t be too wet or you’ll end up with a spongy texture). Let
the bread & milk mixture sit for about an hour, until the milk is
completely absorbed. Add the remaining ingredients & mix together
until evenly incorporated. Try to form a spoonful of the mixture into
a 2-inch ball – if it won’t hold together, add some breadcrumbs, a
spoonful at a time, until it’s a consistency that holds. Form the
remainder of the mixture into balls & set aside on a tray until
you’re ready to fry them. (It helps to dab your hands with a bit of
olive oil from time to time to keep them from getting too sticky.)
Heat the tomato sauce in a wide sauce pan that can accommodate the pallotte,
more or less, in a single layer, until it reaches a slow, steady
simmer. Meanwhile, heat the olive oil in a wide skillet until
shimmering & gently fry the pallotte
for 2-3 minutes per side, until a golden crust forms, a batch at a
time. Remove to a plate lined with paper towels & continue to fry
the remainder of the pallotte
in the same manner. Gently transfer the fried pallotte
to the pot of sauce & simmer at a slow, steady pace for about 30
min., stirring occasionally so they don’t stick to the bottom.
Serve immediately or reheat prior to serving – they’re even better
the next day.
TO MAKE THE SAUCE: In a large saucepan, sauté the onion in 2 tbsp
olive oil over medium-low heat until soft & golden, about 6-8
min. Add the minced garlic & sauté for about a minute, until
fragrant. Add the reserved tomatoes & their juices &
the basil, raise the heat & bring to a boil. Lower the heat
& simmer gently for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Add the
remaining spoon of olive oil & a teaspoon pinch salt & simmer
for 10 more minutes. Season to taste. Any unused sauce may be
stored in a vacuum-tight container in the refrigerator for up to 7
days or in the freezer for up to 3 months.