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Almost “No-Stir” Polenta and Mushroom Ragù

  • January 22, 2013

 With daytime temperatures dipping to below freezing here in the Northeast U.S., it’s time for heartier foods. Yea, I know, you’re all sated from rich holiday foods, but if there’s one thing I can’t resist during cold weather, it’s a heaping plate of polenta – with cheese, with sausages or in this case, with mushroom ragù. It’s featured on many of the menus along the mountain huts in Italy where skiers pop in mid-day for a bit of sustenance for the rest of their run. It was truly needed last week while I was skiing in the Val Gardena, a valley of three villages in the northeastern region called Alto Adige. The snow fell practically non-stop and is continuing this week.

This is what the area looked like last week, when you couldn’t even see the mountains in the distance.
Here’s the same scene taken during a different ski trip, when the sun revealed the grandiose peaks.
[Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 702[3].jpg]
With such low visibility, the skiing was cautious and the stops were frequent, including one for a plate of this soft polenta topped with cheese and served with mushrooms on the side:
But you don’t need to take a trip to the Val Gardena to enjoy this dish. In fact, I made a similar version, but with tomatoes, before I left for Italy, using dried porcini mushrooms and baby portabella mushrooms. If you can’t find the porcini, use any combo of mushrooms that suit your fancy.
After the mushrooms simmer in the sauce for a good hour, you end up with a rich and flavorful ragù perfect for slathering over the polenta.
I own a sturdy copper pot with an electric motor that stirs the polenta all by itself – called a “paiolo.” Click the button at the lower left to get a demonstration.
 It is pretty nifty but not really necessary to making polenta. Last month I watched a TV segment of “America’s Test Kitchen” featuring a way to make polenta without stirring (well, almost, except at the very beginning.) During Christmas week, I served both versions — from the paiolo and the “no stir” method —  to some Italian friends, and they declared them equally good.
Most people use water in their polenta, but sometimes I add milk, especially if I’m having company. If you want to be really decadent, try using some cream too. In that case, just make sure you take an extra run or two down the mountain.

Mushroom Ragù
printable recipe here

1 oz. dried porcini
8 oz. baby bella mushrooms (or another variety you prefer)
2 T. olive oil
1/2 carrot, minced
1/2 cup chopped onion
1 garlic clove, minced
1/2 of a 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes
1/4 cup red wine
1 T. tomato paste
about 1 cup of the liquid from soaking the porcini mushrooms
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary

Rehydrate the dried porcini in two cups of warm water for about a half hour. Drain and chop the mushrooms, and strain the liquid to filter out any dirt or sand particles. Saute the mushrooms in the olive oil, and add the carrot, onion and garlic until softened. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about an hour until thick and rich. If it gets a little too thick, add more of the liquid from the porcini. Serve over steaming polenta.

Almost no-stir Polenta
From America’s Test Kitchen

Why this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.
The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt pinch baking soda (I like to use a combination of milk and water – proportions are up to you.)
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.
2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)
3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste
with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing
Parmesan separately.

Zuppa di Orzo/Mushroom Barley Soup

  • March 8, 2012
“It’s mostly on flat terrain, not too much climbing” said the woman behind the desk when I asked her about the guided hike sponsored by the hotel. On that advice, I took a pass on skiing my last day in the Val Gardena and instead joined a group of eight other people for a walk in the mountains.
After skiing all week on snow that had become slushier and slushier due to unseasonably warm weather, “How hard could this be?” I thought. Well, as it turns out, a lot harder than I ever imagined. We started out on flat terrain alright, as we headed away from the village.
The trail was on even ground, albeit a little icy and/or slushy in places.
There were signs to some castle ruins at one point, but why was another sign suggesting children under 14 be accompanied by adults?

I was soon to find out, as the trail became more difficult – and entirely uphill — nearly three hours of  uphill – in snow and slush and ice and me without hiking boots. So what was that story the lady at the hotel desk told me about flat terrain? And who were all these people ahead of me who seemed to be having no trouble negotiating the terrain? marathoners? (well, yes as it turned out, one of them was.)
I could say though the scenery was breathtaking, but truly I had little breath left to give, since I was huffing and puffing from the climb.
We passed a via crucis (signs of the cross) along the trail. It seemed like a prayer was in order.
(Please God, get me down from this mountain in one piece – or at least to the lunch place.)
Thankfully, he answered my prayers and I straggled into the mountain-side baita last in my group. But at least I made it intact. Partly due to Giovanni, a generous man from Rome (and a real marathoner who has run in races all over the world). At one point in the descent, Giovanni used his boots to create a staircase in the snow for me, allowing me to place my feet where he had left his footprints.
Lunch never tasted so good, and the view wasn’t bad either.
Giovanni’s wife, Maria, ordered the barley soup, made with bits of speck.
But a lot of people ordered the homemade mezzelune (half moons), stuffed with spinach and slathered butter and parmesan cheese. They were delicious.
After bolstering our bellies and our confidence, we started back down. If I thought the uphill climb was a challenge, well, the downhill trip was ever more difficult, since the opportunity to slip was even greater. The previous days of skiing had been a piece of cake compared to this one-day hike.
Again, I held up the rear the whole way down (you never know when a wild boar might attack the group — someone’s got to be on the alert.)
We took a different trail down and the village was in sight sooner than I expected.
I’m not sure I’d tackle a similar trek again without hiking boots (and more training), but I did meet many nice people that day.
I arrived back at the hotel just as the late afternoon “snack” was set out.
But all I wanted to do was soak in the warmth and bubbles of the indoor-outdoor pool, gaze at the onion dome in one direction…
…and at the formidable mountains I had just conquered in the other direction. It’s safe to say I won’t be climbing Mt. Everest any time soon.
Back in the states, I put on a pot of barley soup, but instead of the speck, I made mine with mushrooms – both dried porcini mushrooms and fresh ones from the supermarket. By the way, in Italian, orzo means barley, not those small rice-shaped pastas labeled orzo in the U.S.
Mushroom-Barley Soup
  • 4 cups chicken broth (you can make this entirely vegetarian if you want by using vegetable broth)
  • 1/2 cup barley
  • 1 oz. dried porcini mushrooms
  • 1 1/2 cups water
  • 12 oz. white “button” mushrooms, sliced
  • 2 T. olive oil
  • 3 cloves garlic
  • 1 large onion, minced finely
  • 2 stalks celery, chopped finely
  • 1 carrot, cut into small bits
  • 1 bay leaf
  • small bit of finely chopped rosemary
  • salt
  • pepper
  • 1/4 cup sherry
  • heavy cream (optional)
  • sour cream (optional)


Bring 1 1/2 cups of the chicken broth to a boil and add the barley. Let it simmer for about 1/2 hour to 45 minutes, while you prepare the rest of the soup. Soak the porcini mushrooms in the water for about 20 minutes or until the mushrooms have softened. Don’t throw away the liquid, but strain it through a filter and reserve.
In a large pot, saute the onions in the oil until soft, then add the garlic, minced celery and carrot bits. Add the fresh mushrooms and continue sauteing until the mushrooms have developed some color and are cooked. Add the porcini mushrooms and their reserved liquid. At this point, if the barley has softened, add it and the liquid it was cooking in into the pot. Add the remaining chicken broth. Add the sherry and seasonings, including the bay leaf and cook for another half hour, until thickened. If necessary, add more water or stock if it gets too thick.
If you want to make it a creamy soup, add heavy cream to your liking, and serve with a dollop of sour cream.

Italian Goulash in the Dolomites

  • March 3, 2012
  Yes, you heard me right – goulash – Italian goulash. Goulash (or goulasch) is mostly associated with Hungary, but the northeastern part of Italy where this is eaten once belonged to the Austro-Hungarian empire — that is until after World War I when the South Tyrol was ceded to Italy.


People in the region – now known as Trentino-Alto Adige – still speak German, as well as Italian. In a few valleys, including the Alto Adige’s Val Gardena, where I just returned from, Ladino is also spoken. Ladino is a language that derives from a mixture of Celtic, Latin and the original language of the inhabitants of the area. (Not to be confused with the Ladino language mainly spoken in Israel, Turkey and Greece by descendents of Sephardic Jews expelled from Spain in 1492.)

Signs are always written in at least two languages and sometimes all three in this Northern Italian region that also is home to the Dolomite Mountains — a fantasy land for skiers and hikers where mountain peaks  look like they were created by a fairy-tale set designer. This peak is known as the Sciliar, and is particularly picturesque.
 To ski the Val Gardena really does seem like you’re in the midst of a fairy tale, especially as you round a bend and find this 17th century castle in front of you – a private residence now owned by the heirs of the artist Cy Twombly, according to one local source I spoke to.

Every now and then a horse and carriage will trot by while you’re skiing, adding to the enchantment.


The mountains and vistas are truly majestic. Sometimes they speak with a grandiose voice:


And other times just with a delicate whisper.
Occasionally a Saint Bernard dog will saunter onto the scene (without the small cask at the collar, alas).
Little chapels spring up where you’d least expect them.
Evergreen trees are more common here than say, the aspens you see along slopes in Colorado.
If you choose La Longia, you’ll have 10.6 kilometers (or 6.5 miles) of uninterrupted skiing.
Just when you think your knees will give out, you come across a frozen waterfall that gives you an excuse for a respite.
But the sweetest reward comes at my favorite mountain hut near the end of the trail – the charming Cafe Val D’Anna, where a hearty lunch always tempts.
The crispy hard bread in the basket is known as schuttelbrot, a crunchy local bread made with caraway seeds and rye and perfect with sausages and polenta.
It’s hard to resist my favorite apple strudel with vanilla sauce (creme anglais). A couple of years ago, a barista working at a different restaurant on the mountain – the Mont Seuc – gave me its recipe (click here), much “cakier” and far different from the phyllo-like pastries in the typical Viennese apple strudel.
And it wouldn’t be skiing in the Val Gardena without at least one bombardino to loosen you up for the next round of schussing down the mountain. This one’s for you Rich. ♥
Back at the hotel, the view from the hotel room at sunset is mesmerizing. But the salt-water indoor-outdoor swimming pool also beckons – and I heed the call. ….. To be continued.


It’s still not too late. Join me for a week in Italy at the end of May and live like an Italian – sightseeing, cooking and eating in a villa located in the Alban Hills near Rome. There’s still time to enroll. For details go to: 

I have eaten plenty of bowls of goulash soup (recipe here) in my years of skiing in the Val Gardena, but have also enjoyed lots of more substantial goulash stews served with piping hot bowls of polenta. Here’s my version for you.

Beef Goulash

Printable Recipe Here

4 pounds beef chuck, cubed
4 T. olive oil
2 large onions, chopped
4 garlic cloves, minced
1 1/2 cups dry red wine
@ 2 cups beef broth
3 T. tomato paste
3 bay leaves
4 T. sweet paprika
1 T. hot paprika
a few sprigs of fresh thyme
1 1/2 t. ground cumin
1 t. caraway seeds

In a large covered pot that is oven proof, saute the beef over medium heat in the olive oil until browned on the outside. Remove the meat from the pot and add the chopped onions, adding more olive oil if needed. When the onions are limp, add the garlic cloves and saute for a few minutes. Put the beef back into the pot and add the rest of the ingredients. Put the lid on the pot and place in a 350 degree oven for 2 hours.

Serve with polenta, mashed potatoes, or noodles.

Bombardino Time and Giveaway Winner

  • March 2, 2009

I’m back …. and we have a winner chosen at random from the responses to my query about the name of the drink.
The winner is Katie of Summertree Cafe, but Katie, you don’t list your email address on your blog. So please contact me so I can send you the chocolates in the photo. Email me at with your full name and address.

I’ll be posting some recipes in the coming weeks from my visit to relatives and friends, and a week of skiing in the Italy’s Dolomite mountains.

I’ll start with the drink that several of you guessed correctly from the picture, even though naming it correctly wasn’t a requirement to winning. It’s a bombardino – great for steadying the nerves when you’re a little apprehensive about that next mogul. The drink is most popular in the winter at ski resorts and it’s made using Vov, a liqueur made with eggs, and rum or brandy or whisky, plus whipped cream on top. It’s almost like drinking a warm (and highly spiked) eggnog with whipped cream. In Italy, you can also find bottles of bombardino already mixed and ready to warm up. It’s always served in clear glass cups, sometimes with a straw and a spoon.

For those of you unable to get to Italy and enjoy a bombardino, I’m posting a recipe for the drink adapted from “Italian Kitchen Secrets.”
My aunt used to make her own Vov and stored it in a cabinet. But just to be safe, I’d recommend keeping it in the refrigerator until ready to consume.

With a foot of snow forecast here today in Central New Jersey, it might be just what you need to spur you to shovel that driveway or sidewalk.

3 cups of non-skimmed milk
29 ounces sugar
6 egg yolks
1 cup alcohol (brandy or whisky) and
1 cup rum
(or 2 cups of either brandy, whisky or rum)
1 tablespoon vanilla

Boil the milk with half of the sugar, gently mixing occasionally. Lower to a simmer and cook a couple of minutes, then turn off heat and keep warm.
In a large bowl, mix the egg yolks with the other half of the sugar until creamy and frothy. Add the warm milk in a slow stream, mixing well to avoid lumps. Filter through a strainer if necessary. Add the vanilla, alcohol and rum, mix again and pour into bottles. Wait one week before drinking (if you can), shaking the bottles occasionally.

In our opinion, bombardini are best enjoyed with a slice of apple strudel, ever prevalent on the slopes in the Val Gardena, a beautiful area of three small villages in the Dolomites. The Dolomites are the mountains in the eastern part of the Italian Alps, close to Austria, and are noted for their unique, almost-stalagtite formation and rosy color. The area at one time was below sea level, and many marine fossils are still found today. So we were actually skiing in what once was a barrier reef, hard as it seems to imagine.

Recipe for strudel to follow later.

Time Out for Research and a Give-Away

  • February 12, 2009

If you don’t hear from me for a couple of weeks, it’s not because I’m not thinking of you. It’s because I’m heading off to Italy and won’t be toting along my computer.

I’ll spend some time visiting family and friends near Piacenza, then on to Padova for a few days. The last week I’ll be skiing in the Italian Alps in the beautiful Val Gardena, a scenic valley in the mighty Dolomites, close to the Austrian border.

I’d love to be able to send you posts of the food I’ll be eating, especially at my relatives in the Emilia-Romagna region (Did I ever tell you my cousin Lucia was Miss Tagliatella last year? Really!) but it will have to wait until I get back. I may get a chance to do a bit of blogspotting here and there, but computer connections are few and far between in the places where I’ll be.

I’ll have a lot of catching up to do when I get back but I look forward to tuning in as soon as I can. So many of you have fantastic blogs and it’s been a pleasure to read your posts, try your recipes and get to know you through the blogosphere. You really are a creative, talented and helpful group of people.

So I’ve decided to have my first give-away. Since I won’t be here for Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d make it something chocolate. I don’t know exactly what yet, since I plan to buy it in Italy, but you should be thinking chocolate candy.

The winner will be chosen at random, but the idea is to post a comment on what you think is the name of the drink in this picture. It’s one of the reasons that makes skiing in Italy a unique and delicious experience.

Even if you don’t know what it is, take a stab. You’ll be included in the drawing even you come up with the wrong name. Winner will be announced when I come back in early March, so you can post comments for a couple of weeks. Until then, Happy Valentine’s Day and happy blogging!