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Likewise, people are at the heart of this warm, personal collection of food- and family-inspired essays by former professional chef and food historian Teresa Lust. An Italian immigrant grandmother who plucked chickens in the backyard; an introverted mushroom forager who collected chanterelles in the woods; a German auntie who learned to knead bread in a wooden...
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Likewise, people are at the heart of this warm, personal collection of food- and family-inspired essays by former professional chef and food historian Teresa Lust. An Italian immigrant grandmother who plucked chickens in the backyard; an introverted mushroom forager who collected chanterelles in the woods; a German auntie who learned to knead bread in a wooden bucket; an unassuming wine shop owner who, after closing, offers a bottle of Châteauneuf-du-Pape and a delightfully unpretentious way to value a wine--all are key ingredients in the zesty culinary heritage that Teresa Lust lovingly serves up. Like the creamy, sweet polenta that wooed her father into her mother's robust Italian family, this book is filled with a myriad of rich flavors, history, kitchen tips, and recipes. Lessons in life learned at the stoves of the many seasoned cooks in Lust's world, these wonderful true stories are an expression of art and love, family and self, soil and the seasons.
Pass the Polenta
THE POLENTA STORY is my mother's story, really. "Did I ever tell you about the first time your father had polenta?" she begins, every time she serves it. And I recall her story every time I see polenta on the menu of some trendy, upscale restaurant where I can't afford to dine. Chefs across the country are currently smitten with polenta. They dress it up with all sorts of fancy ingredients — serve it grilled, with sautéed foie gras and Sauternes, for instance, or fried, with seared filet mignon and shaved white truffle, always at a premium price. The most sophisticated diners in the country eat tiny portions of polenta off gold-rimmed Spode china plates, then rinse their palates with Clos-de-Vougeot Burgundy sipped from Waterford crystal goblets.
Yes, when American chefs call it by its Italian name, polenta, it undergoes some sort of transformation. So chic. Exotic. Expensive. This is quite a jump in social status for a dish that in Georgia they call cornmeal mush. Yet back in Italy polenta has always been a staple of the poor. Peasants harvested corn in the fall and air-dried the cobs in their husks over the winter. In the springtime, they milled the ripe kernels into the stone-ground meal that formed the staple of their diet. My Italian grandmother Teresa, who counted me as her namesake, would say an extra rosary if she were still alive to see such pauper fare put on a pedestal. Polenta of all things! What's worse, those pricey restaurants are serving leftovers. Creamy polenta sets up firmly as it cools. Slices of polenta,floured and fried, are what you do with last night's dinner!
Of course it's entirely possible that occasionally some Piedmontese peasant would have unearthed a handful of precious truffles from beneath an oak tree on the way in from the fields. And indeed, his wife might have happily scattered thin slices of these gems over the evening's polenta. But more likely, he ate his dinner with nothing more than a drizzle of melted butter and a few fresh sage leaves.
Polenta is family food. Warm to the mouth, creamy to the tongue, soothing to the throat, and filling to the stomach. Mama feeds it to her baby when his teeth are coming in. Papa feeds it to his mama when her teeth have fallen out. You feed it to the sick because it's bland. You feed it to the poor because it's cheap. When you're lonely, you feed it to yourself because it reminds you of home.
But what you do not do with polenta is serve it to your special guests. That much, Teresa knew on the late autumn evening in 1959 when my mother and father, little more than newlyweds, showed up at her back door in Yakima, Washington. At the time, my parents lived near Seattle, 142 miles away. Just close enough so that after my father's Saturday classes at the university they could decide to load up the car and head east through Douglas fir forests over Snoqualmie Pass. They sped down the sagebrush studded eastern slopes of the Cascades, into the Yakima Valley and up the hill on 23rd Avenue, arriving at the Picatti family kitchen table at seven-thirty, precisely as my grandparents unfolded their napkins across their laps for dinner.
Now, Teresa was not one bit unaccustomed to this. Quite the contrary. Her five children might have all moved out of that redbrick house, but not one of them ever left home. One, or another, or all of them showed back up like boomerangs, usually around mealtime. Consequently, Teresa never unlearned the habit of cooking for a crowd. Why cook one little chicken breast when the pot is big enough for two whole chickens? Not hungry? You must be sick. Eat this, you'll feel better. No one entered Teresa Picatti's kitchen without getting fed.
And yet, when my parents walked through the back door into the kitchen that evening, Teresa was not only surprised, she was mortified. No, she hadn't overcooked the meal, and her larder was far from empty. Why, she'd sliced, minced, and braised in quantities sufficient to feed even four more Picattis should they come to call. But my father was a relative newcomer to the family. A guest for whom Teresa would have arranged a proper feast, even if he was a Protestant. And she knew his tastes were rare indeed, since he had made a bride out of her young daughter. Tonight, what misfortune, all she had for dinner was stew and polenta.
Teresa put her napkin down and stood up from the table. "So good to see you. Come in, come in. Sit down. Oh, but I'm so sorry. If I'd only known you were coming. I've nothing but this old stew on the stove." She clasped her hands together and wrinkled her aquiline nose in a frown. "Well, we can't 'ave this. It justa won't do. Let me fix you a steak, Jim." She turned to my grandfather. "Joe, grab your `at. Run and pick up a steak for Jim at the market." No matter that the neighborhood grocer had locked his door hours earlier.
Both my grandfather and my mother knew that Teresa was coming undone. She didn't misplace her h's and a's unless she became terribly excited. Teresa had packed her bags and taken ship for America to become a governess when she was just fifteen. After forty-five years in a western agricultural town she'd lost most of her Italian accent.
"Oh, Mom," said my mom. My grandparents had raised her to be an American. The only obvious traces of her heritage were her long, Mediterranean nose, and the same dark hair and olive complexion as her mother. "Don't be ridiculous. We're fine. He'll like polenta." She brought two more place settings to the table. "Besides, we're starving."
"It's a good dinner you've made," said my grandfather Joe. "We should sit and eat."
Teresa relented. "Well, I suppose you're right. I guess it would be a shame to let it go to waste."
The rustic nature of the meal owed as much to its peasant origins as it did to the family-style manner in which it was served. Dinner waited at the table in three dishes: a pot of stew, a bowl of polenta, and a plate of cheeses. Diners assembled their own plates unless they were uninitiated, a guest, or, in my father's case, both. Teresa took his plate and began to dish up. She heaped a mound of polenta onto the middle of his plate. It had taken her about thirty minutes of semi-attentive stirring to make such creamy, smooth polenta. Many cookbooks say the only way to avoid lumps is to drizzle the cornmeal into boiling liquid so slowly you can see individual grains falling from your fingers. But there is an easier way. My grandmother started with four parts cold liquid in a heavy saucepan. Perhaps she had a little chicken stock and some milk that day, but she would have used plain water in a pinch. She added one part uncooked coarse-ground cornmeal, a generous spoonful of salt, and some cracked black pepper. She whisked this around until it was nice and smooth, then set the pot over a low flame to stir, stir, stir with a wooden spoon. When the spoon stood up by itself in the sauce pot she knew it was done.
At this point, she threw in a few handfuls of freshly grated cheese. She just happened to have a sliver of Parmigiano-Reggiano left from her last visit to Pete DeLaurenti's store in Pike Place Market. This cheese is the queen of Parmesans. Through serendipity or design, the fortunate cows that graze on the clover in the fertile Enza Valley of Reggio produce some of the richest cream in Italy. Flax-colored, nutty-tasting Reggiano cheese ages eighteen months to become the pride of the region. Teresa tried to keep a piece on hand at all times. Any aged, hard cheese would have sufficed — Parmesan or Romano, domestic or imported. As long as it was grated by hand, that is. I'm sure my grandmother would frown on the stale, pregrated variety you find at the supermarket today.
Teresa next reached for the cheese plate. The nice man at the deli always picked her out a good bulbous round of provolone when she stopped there. She draped a thin slice of the young, soft, buttery cheese over the polenta. Next, she picked up a strip of mozzarella. The gift of mozzarella is not so much in its flavor, but the manner in which it oozes into a dish and picks up flavors from the other ingredients. She wished, I imagine, just this once to be back in Italy, so she could at least garnish this modest meal with fresh Italian mozzarella. True mozzarella comes from the milk of water buffaloes. Italians also make a less expensive, but less flavorful version from cows' milk. Both are extremely perishable, and I doubt my grandmother could find them after she left Turin. She would be pleased to know that fresh mozzarella, both domestic and imported, is now readily available in this country. In keeping with the spirit of polenta's humble roots, she probably used some old, commercial product manufactured out in New Jersey. But even rubbery New Jersey mozzarella melted to velvet on her polenta.
She tore a slice of Gorgonzola into pieces and scattered it onto the steaming polenta, flicking her fingers to keep it from sticking to her hands. You often hear that Gorgonzola is the Italian answer to the blue-veined Roquefort cheese of France. While the two are similar in appearance, Roquefort is made from the milk of the ewe, and Gorgonzola is a product of the cow. For centuries, the town of Gorgonzola near Milan was a stopover for herdsmen and their cattle, who migrated down from the Alps to overwinter on the Po River plain. Because these cows were tired from the arduous descent, the cheese the villagers made from their milk came to be called stracchino di Gorgonzola; stracco being the word for "tired" in the local dialect. Somewhere in time the adjective was lopped off, but the town of Gorgonzola remains famous for the creamy, blue-mottled cheese. Some people claim its heady flavor, which is not unlike a combination of toasted almonds and urea, is an acquired taste. Others think it stinks. Of course they are absolutely right. It does stink. It stinks in the same manner as some folks claim oysters stink. Yet both bivalve and blue mold boast advocates who extol their praises and consume them with a passion.
I've no idea what my grandmother thought of oysters, but she added a second slice of Gorgonzola, then reached for the ladle in her stewpot. She'd set to work cooking that stew in the early afternoon, though she often made it a day in advance and heated it up just before dinner. The longer sits the pot, the better tastes the stew, she'd say. She started with a couple of pounds of stewing meat, chuck roast, most likely, trimmed off the gristle, cut it into chunks and dredged the pieces in flour. She put a little lump of the fat into her cast-iron pot, rendered it over low heat and added the meat. When the pieces were nice and browned she threw in a cut-up onion, four or five fat cloves of slivered garlic, a bay leaf, some oregano, thyme, and rosemary. After the onion grew limp and translucent, Teresa poured in a few glugs of red wine, saving the last inch in the bottle for my grandfather's glass at dinner.
Into the pot went a jar of the tomatoes she'd put up last August. She covered the stew with a lid and let it cook away softly on the back burner for a couple of hours. She checked the pot occasionally by sticking a finger into the simmering broth for a taste, giving it a stir, and adding water if too much liquid had evaporated. Near the end, she threw in some sliced celery, a couple of carrots, some mushrooms if she had them, maybe a turnip or two. She let the pot bubble gently until the vegetables were tender and the meat had plumb given up, then seasoned the stew with salt and pepper.
The results were the rich, meaty spoonfuls she ladled over the polenta and cheese. Steaming, thick juices blanketed a bed of polenta. Tender meat, caramelized onions, smoky garlic, aromatic herbs, pungent warm cheese. The whole thing was one melting mound of flavors. Teresa finished the plate with a generous sprinkling of Parmigiano-Reggiano and set it before my father.
After my mother and grandparents had fixed their own plates in turn, my father picked up his fork and started to eat. Teresa kept watch out of the corner of her eye. When my father really enjoys a meal, he polishes it off without saying a word. He doesn't bother with conversation until later, it just slows him down. He bent his head with intention over the plate, revealing thin hair where a bald spot would eventually appear. Rising steam from the stew fogged up his thick horn-rimmed glasses. He quickly finished and politely asked for a second helping.
Teresa looked across the table at my grandfather, who gave her a faint, but encouraging nod, then she served my father up another plateful. But she knew she was not out of hot water just yet. She speared a tight button mushroom that had tumbled from her own mound of stew and tried to busy herself, too nervous to eat much. With the mushroom as a mop she swabbed up rivulets of the rich broth. She prodded bits of tomato, pushed aside the overlooked bay leaf, all the while looking discreetly through the bottom of her bifocals at my father. In her experience, if a guest ate only seconds, he had done so merely to be polite. The meal was not so bad that he would refuse a second taste, but perhaps not so well prepared that he would lose sight of his manners. A genuine culinary triumph came when a guest succumbed to the flavorful temptations on the table before him and dove in with abandon for a third helping.
My father couldn't get enough. With an ever so slightly embarrassed grin on his face, he asked for thirds. This time he prepared his own plate. He scooped up the polenta, laid down the cheese, and slathered on the stew. He hesitated a moment, then added an extra slice of Gorgonzola. Teresa raised her eyes and gave a faint twitch of a smile. "Not bad on a cold night, this polenta, eh?"
Indeed, stew with polenta may not be a tuxedo-clad company dish; perhaps it's just dinner. If anything, it serves as a barometer of the economic times. My mother's oldest brother says during the Depression he would stop by my grandfather's shop on the way home from school. If a customer had come in to settle his bills that day, my uncle knew there would be meat on the table with the polenta. During the fifties, when America prospered, one of my aunts remembers my grandmother stirring the polenta and muttering, "Thirteen kinds of cheese you've got in the Fridgedaire, Joe Picatti. You bring home one more and I'm not speakin' to you for a week."
Is it really such a great surprise to see a bowl of porridge take our country by storm? After all, it was with a barley gruel they called polenta in their stomachs that the Roman legions brought the world to its knees. And with polenta in her sauce pot, Teresa brought my father into the family. All we've done, perhaps, is come full circle.
|Pass the Polenta||1|
|Easy as Pie||13|
|A Good Roast Chicken||27|
|Of Cabbages and Kings||39|
|The Same Old Stuffing||51|
|When Fathers Cook||65|
|At Ease with Strangers||91|
|Wine by Numbers||107|
|On Tossing a Caesar||121|
|No Ordinary Soup||135|
|A Secret Well Kept||151|
|Enough Room for Strawberry Shortcake||165|
|Fueling the Passions||193|
|For Further Reading||267|