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Robin Garr

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RCP /FoodLetter: Modifying recipes (Fruili polenta with sausage & mushrooms)

by Robin Garr » Thu Aug 31, 2006 11:25 am

Modifying recipes

The whole world, it is said, is divided into two classes of people: Those who divide everything into two classes and those who do not. But I digress. The culinary world, more to the point, seems to be divided between those who scrupulously follow every step in a published recipe, and those who modify recipes freely.

Mark me down firmly among the modifiers. I might, occasionally, follow a recipe precisely the first time I do it, particularly if it's an ethnic recipe that I want to make as authentically as possible, or maybe a classic procedure that I want to learn the traditional way. But even then, I may succumb to the temptation to add a little garlic to the ingredients list, or a splash of hot sauce; or short-cut a procedure that doesn't seem to be necessary.

Part of the process of learning to cook well, it seems to me, lies in gaining the confidence to read through a recipe, visualize what it will be like without actually cooking it, and knowing when it's okay to change it and when it's more prudent to follow orders.

The other day, sensing a hint of fall in the shortening days and changing slant of light if not in the heat and humidity, I was in the mood for something a little autumnal, and turned to a favorite (and sadly out-of-print) cookbook, Fred Plotkin's "La Terra Fortunata, The Splendid Food and Wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia."

Plotkin's recipe for <I>Polenta Pasticciata</I>, an easy, hearty dish of polenta topped with mushrooms or sausage and molten cheese, looked like just the thing. But a stern warning in the introduction rubbed me the wrong way: "<I>Cheese is essential, but the mushrooms or sausage are optional</I>," he wrote. "<I>Do not use both options</i>."

"<I><b>Do not use both options</b></i>?" I mimicked, putting on a squeaky falsetto. "Why the hell not?" Sausage-and-mushrooms is one of my favorite pizza-topping combinations, and I think their earthy flavors go great together. Plus, I don't react well to being told what to do. So off I went to the kitchen, defying instructions and, I think, ending up with an excellent dinner. While I was at it, I added some garlic and onions, too; substituted Asiago fresco for the difficult-to-find Fruili Montasio cheese, and freely dispensed salt and pepper even though Plotkin's recipe, somewhat surprisingly, didn't mention them.

Here's my defiantly modified version. I liked it, and I think you will, too. (Of course you can leave the sausage out if you prefer it vegetarian.)

INGREDIENTS: (Serves two)

<B>For the polenta:</B>
1/2 cup (120g) cornmeal
1 teaspoon (5ml) salt
2 cups (480ml) water

<B>For the topping</B>
4 to 6 ounces white or brown domestic mushrooms
2 cloves garlic
2 tablespoons (30g) butter
Salt
Black pepper
1 mild Italian sausage
1/2 cup chopped sweet white or yellow onion
2 ounces Asiago fresco or similar Italian cheese

PROCEDURE:

1. Make a thick polenta, using my non-traditional technique to avoid lumps: Pour the cornmeal and salt into the water in a saucepan while it's <i>cold</i>, stirring until it forms a smooth slurry; then cook this over medium-high heat until it thickens and starts to bubble. Reduce heat to very low and simmer, stirring frequently so it won't stick, until it's thick and very smooth. The traditional Italian technique calls for an hour of stirring, but with commercial cornmeal such as Quaker brand, you can get away with much less, as little as 5 to 10 minutes. Pour the hot polenta into an ovenproof baking dish that's been lightly greased with butter or olive oil, spread it out in an even layer, and set aside.

2. Cut the mushrooms into thick slices and mince the garlic. Saute the garlic in the butter in a skillet over medium heat until it's translucent and aromatic, then add the mushrooms and cook until they sweat, seasoning to taste with salt and pepper. Add a little additional butter (or water if you prefer) if they start to stick.

3. Take the sausage out of its skin and crumble it. Peel and chop the onion. Saute the sausage, using no additional fat, until it gives off a little fat, then add the chopped onions and continue sauteeing until the sausage is cooked and the onions are nicely browned.

4. Put the cooked mushrooms atop the polenta, then spread the sausage and onions over that; cover all with the cheese cut into thin slices. (If you prefer, you can follow the cookbook's original instructions, using either sausage <i>or</I> mushrooms and cheese, or divide the polenta between two separate bowls and top one with sausage and cheese, the other with mushrooms and cheese. I still say it's fine to blend them.)

5. Bake in a 350F (175C) oven for 5 to 10 minutes until the cheese is bubbly and starts to brown. Serve at once, with a salad or green vegetable and crusty bread if you like.

<B>MATCHING WINE:</b>
This could go very well with a richer-style white, and a Tocai Friulano or a full-bodied Pinot Grigio from Friuli's Collio or Colli Orientale would be just right. I wanted something red, though, and the good-value Falesco 2004 Vitiano Rosso, an affordable Sangiovese, Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot blend from Umbria, hit the spot. A Chianti or Toscano Rosso would have done the job, too.
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Alan Wolfe

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Modifying recipes (Fruili polenta with sausage & mushrooms)

by Alan Wolfe » Fri Sep 08, 2006 10:51 am

I've never tasted polenta, and your recipe and advice looked good so I decided to give it a try. I didn't have the stuff you used, and didn't want to make the long drive into town to try and find them, and would not have been able to get even the easy-to-find Asiago fresco in any case, so I used what I had.

Sage sausage, jalapeno peppers, onion, Monterrey Jack cheese. Not as ethnic as your recipe, surely, but I might be able to get away with calling it Appalachian ethnic if I use Velveeta next time around. Very tasty. Thanks.
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Robin Garr

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Modifying recipes (Fruili polenta with sausage & mushro

by Robin Garr » Fri Sep 08, 2006 11:02 am

Alan Wolfe wrote:I used what I had.

Sage sausage, jalapeno peppers, onion, Monterrey Jack cheese. Not as ethnic as your recipe, surely, but I might be able to get away with calling it Appalachian ethnic if I use Velveeta next time around. Very tasty. Thanks.


Alan, in the very spirit of "modifying recipes," you did just what you should. And speaking of Appalachia, there's only a very short distance between polenta and cornmeal mush.

Thanks for the report!
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Ian Sutton

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Modifying recipes (Fruili polenta with sausage & mushro

by Ian Sutton » Fri Sep 08, 2006 12:13 pm

I'm in danger of being in a third category, one that might see an interesting recipe and then just go ahead and make what I want to based on the general theme without referring back to the recipe :oops: :roll:

I'm sure it would be better if I followed the recipe, but it's never as much fun!
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Linda R. (NC)

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Modifying recipes (Fruili polenta with sausage & mushrooms)

by Linda R. (NC) » Mon Sep 11, 2006 1:25 pm

I've never made polenta and was wondering what type of cornmeal works best? You don't specify white or yellow. What I have is white and very fine, almost like flour. Should I look for a more coarse grind?

Thanks.
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Robin Garr

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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Modifying recipes (Fruili polenta with sausage & mushro

by Robin Garr » Mon Sep 11, 2006 4:19 pm

Linda R. (NC) wrote:what type of cornmeal works best? You don't specify white or yellow. What I have is white and very fine, almost like flour. Should I look for a more coarse grind?


Linda, recognizing that we're replicating in the US a dish from Italy, where ingredients differ, I try not to be a food snob, and I'm satisfied with just about any kind of cornmeal. Actually, the polenta I've enjoyed in Italy is usually made from white and very fine cornmeal, which seems to make a more smooth and refined finished dish, so it sounds like you're good to go! But I often make it with simple, rather coarse Quaker yellow cornmeal, and that works just fine by me.
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Re: RCP /FoodLetter: Modifying recipes (Fruili polenta with sausage & mushro

by Linda R. (NC) » Mon Sep 11, 2006 5:07 pm

Thanks Robin. That's good to know about fine white cornmeal. What I saw just now at the store was mostly white, and most of that was either self-rising cornmeal or a cornmeal mix. This was just a plain-jane grocery store. I know some of the specialty stores carry a variety of different grinds, etc., some even labeled polenta. I'll try what I've got, and if I like that, maybe try some of the others.

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