PRIZE POLENTA PASTA PERFECT

The staple foods of north Italy are transformed into gastronomic treats with a judicious choice of toppings, says Michael Bateman. Our second extract from `The River Caf Cook Book', shows how it is done FOOD FROM THE RIVER CAFE
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EACH of the northern regions of Italy has its own special basic staple food. In Tuscany it is bread - wonderful country breads eaten either fresh or, after a day or two, toasted to make bruschetta, drizzled with spicy olive oils, or dunked into country soups to give them body and added flavour. The staple of the Venice area, the Veneto, is rice. So risotto appears there in many exciting forms.

This week, however, we focus on polenta, which is the staple food of most of the northern areas of Italy, and.pasta, which is the staple of the Emilia-Romagna region.

Polenta is ground maize (what Americans call corn), that is to say, ripened, hard, golden nuggets of sweetcorn. It is made into a thick golden porridge, enriched with butter and Parmesan cheese, or used as a base for cakes.

There are different grades of polenta and several shades of colour from white through to yellow. Making real polenta isn't quick, though it's easy if you pay attention and don't let it stick. Italian country families use a caldiera, a heavy copper pan with a cone base that fits in a hole in the stove. Here, it's best to use a heavy-bottomed pan.

It is eaten either "wet" with a main course instead of, say, potatoes, or !eft to cool in slabs and then grilled, usually served as a starter in a number of exciting ways. You can choose the thickness you prefer, spreading it to cool on a baking dish or oiled marble slab with a palette knife. It's a matter of taste: in some smart Italian restaurants it may be as a thin as 14in/1cm; others prefer to cut it into wedges up to 212in/6cm thick.

At the River Caf, Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers make polenta with the new season's grain only and either grill it or serve it wet with butter and Parmesan. They cook it wet to go with the recipes that have a lot of juice to be soaked up by the polenta, such as game birds, sausages with tomato sauce, field and wild mushrooms. Grilled polenta has a crust, with a texture inside that is delicious with any of their sauces, salads, or braised vegetables.

To Rose and Ruth the quality of ingredients is everything. "As you must search for the best rice or pasta flour you must also find the best polenta flour," they say. They use bramata (wholemeal), an organic mixture of three types of maize kernels. The texture is grainy, the colour deep orange/yellow and there is a wonderful smell of simmering corn.

"On our first wine-tasting trip to Italy," Ruth and Rose remember, "we ate a dish of polenta in a restaurant in Piedmont that was unlike any we had ever had before. We had to find out where it came from and finally tracked down the mill where it was ground. This is the polenta we now use."

This brand, Sobrino, is now imported to this country by Wine Cellars, 153 Wandsworth High Street, London SW18 (0181-871 2668).

POLENTA

Serves 6-8

12oz/350g polenta flour

3-312 pints/1.75-2 litres water

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

5oz/150g butter, at room temperature

7oz/200g Parmesan, freshly grated

Put the polenta flour in a jug with a spout so that it can be poured in a steady stream.

Bring the water to the boil in a large saucepan and add 1 teaspoon of salt. Lower the heat to a simmer and slowly add the polenta flour, stirring with a whisk until completely blended. It will now start to bubble volcanically. Reduce the heat to as low as possible, and cook the polenta, stirring from time to time with a wooden spoon to prevent a skin forming, for about 40-45 minutes.

The polenta is cooked when it falls away from the sides of the pan and has become very dense and thick.

Stir in the butter and grated Parmesan and season generously with salt and pepper.

GRILLED POLENTA

POLENTA ALLA GRIGLIA

Serves 6-8

Make the polenta as described above, omitting the butter and Parmesan.

When it is ready, transfer the polenta to a large flat baking tray or plate, or oiled marble slab, and spread it out to form a cake about 34in/2cm thick.

Leave until completely cold, then cut into wedges or slices.

Preheat the grill to very hot. Brush the pieces of polenta on both sides with olive oil and grill for 3 minutes on each side or until crisp and brown.

Serve in any of the ways illustrated overleaf .

WET POLENTA WITH

PARTRIDGE

Serves 6

6 partridges, plucked and cleaned

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 fresh thyme sprigs

6 large slices prosciutto

4oz/100g dried porcini mushrooms, reconstituted (soak them in hot water for 15-20 minutes)

olive oil

2 garlic cloves, peeled and chopped

10fl oz/300ml red wine

10oz/300g freshly cooked wet polenta

5oz/150g butter

5oz/150g Parmesan, freshly grated

Season the partridges inside and out, and put the thyme sprigs in the cavities. Place the prosciutto slices over the breast and legs of the birds and tie on with string.

Drain porcini, straining and reserving the liquid, and rinse under cold running water.

Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil and gently cook garlic until light brown, along with any remaining thyme leaves and the porcini. Fry for a further minute, then add about 10fl oz/ 300ml of the strained porcini liquid.

Continue to simmer gently, adding liquid if necessary, until the mushrooms are tender and there are no juices left, about 15 minutes.

Preheat the oven to 450-475F/230-240C/gas 8-9. In a large roasting pan, heat 2 further tablespoons of oil and brown the birds on each side on top of the stove. Roast in the very hot oven for 10 minutes, then turn the birds over. Add the mushrooms and half the wine. Return to the over for a further 5-10 minutes.

Stir 2oz/50g of the butter and 3oz/75g of the Parmesan into the polenta.

To serve, spoon polenta on to warm plates then place a partridge on top with some porcini. Deglaze pan with remaining wine and butter. Season, then pour over the bird and polenta. Sprinkle with remaining Parmesan.

POLENTA, ALMOND AND LEMON CAKE

TORTA DI POLENTA, MANDORLE E LIMONE

Serves 10

1lb/450g unsalted butter, softened

1lb/450g caster sugar

1lb/450g ground almonds

2 teaspoons good vanilla essence

zest of 4 lemons and juice of 1 lemon

6 eggs

8oz/225g polenta flour

112 teaspoons baking powder and 14 teaspoon salt

Preheat the oven to 325F/160C/gas 3. Butter and flour a 12in/30cm cake tin.

Beat butter and sugar together until pale and light. Stir in ground almonds and vanilla. Beat in eggs, one at a time. Fold in lemon zest and juice, polenta, baking powder and salt.

Spoon into the prepared tin and bake in the preheated oven for 45-50 minutes, or until set. The cake will be deep brown on top.

An Italian cook will look in the cupboard to see what pasta she has before deciding which sauce to make. Rose and Ruth point out that their Italian friends would not dream of serving a carbonara sauce with any other pasta than penne, a vongole (clam) sauce with anything other than spaghetti.

There is a logic to these rules: the creamy thick sauces need to have the support of the sturdier, thicker shapes of pens, tubes and shells; while the oil-based sauces - such as those made with crab, volgole or anchovies - are best with the long, thin pasta shapes.

At the River Caf the choice of pasta dishes is seasonal, with comforting, robust recipes in winter and fresher ones in the summer. The time of day is also a consideration: sturdy sauces and dried pasta for lunch, more refined sauces and fresh pasta in the evening.

PENNE ALLA CARBONARA

The two most important ingredients are excellent free-range eggs and pancetta stesa (air-dried cured streaky bacon).

Serves 6

7oz/200g pancetta stesa, cut into matchsticks

1 tablespoon olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

6 egg yolks

4fl oz/120ml double cream

5oz/150g Parmesan, freshly grated

9oz/250g penne rigate

In a large pan fry the pancetta in the olive oil slowly, so that it releases its own fat before becoming crisp. Add some black pepper.

Beat the egg yolks with the cream and season with salt and pepper. Add half the Parmesan.

Meanwhile, cook the penne (nib-shaped pasta) in a generous amount of boiling salted water, then drain thoroughly.

Combine immediately with the hot pancetta and the oil, and then pour in the cream mixture. Stir to coat each pasta piece; the heat from the pasta will cook the egg slightly. Finally add the remaining Parmesan and serve.

As an alternative to the pancetta, cut 112lb/675g of blanched asparagus into short pieces and fry briefly in oil with a handful of basil leaves. Add to the pasta before combining with the egg sauce.

LINGUINI WITH CRAB

LINGUINE AL GRANCHIO

Serves 10

2 large live male crabs, about 412-612lb/2-3kg total weight

3 fresh red chillies, seeded and finely chopped

3 handfuls flat-leaf parsley, finely chopped

juice of 4 lemons

3 garlic cloves, peeled and ground to a paste with a little salt

8fl oz/250ml olive oil

18oz/500g linguine

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

extra virgin olive oil

Get the fishmonger to kill the crabs for you. In a saucepan large enough to hold both, bring enough water to the boil to cover the crabs. Boil gently for 20 minutes, then remove from the water and leave to cool.

Remove the claws and legs. Break the bodies open carefully. Remove the brown meat from inside the shell and transfer along with any juices to a bowl. Remove the white meat from the claws and legs and add to the brown meat in the bowl. Mix together.

Add the chilli and most of the chopped parsley, the lemon juice and crushed garlic to the crab mixture. Stir in the olive oil. This sauce should be quite liquid.

Cook the linguine (a pasta that is like a very fine spaghetti) in a generous amount of boiling salted water then drain thoroughly. Stir into the crab sauce, but do not reheat.

Serve sprinkled with the remaining parsley and a generous amount of extra virgin olive oil.

BUCATINI WITH FRESH AND DRIED OREGANO

BUCATINI CON ORIGANO

This recipe came from Il Vipore, a restaurant in the hills outside Lucca. It is the abundance of both dried and fresh oregano that makes it such an interesting dish.

Serves 6

2 large handfuls fresh oregano, very finely chopped

2oz/50g dried oregano, crumbled

8 red cherry tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped

8 yellow cherry tomatoes, seeded and finely chopped

3fl oz/85ml extra virgin olive oil

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

9oz/250g bucatini

Mix the fresh and dried oregano together.

Marinate the tomatoes in half of the olive oil and some salt and pepper.

Cook the bucatini (a pasta like a thin spaghetti) in a generous amount of boiling salted water, then drain thoroughly and return to the pan. Toss with the oregano mixture and the remaining olive oil. Place a small amount of the tomato on the top of each serving.

PASTA SHELLS WITH

BROCCOLI

CONCHIGLIE CON BROCCOLI

It is best to use large pasta shells for this recipe. Use purple sprouting broccoli with its leaves.

Serves 6

212lb/1.1kg broccoli head and leaves

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

2 tablespoons olive oil

3 large garlic cloves, peeled and cut into fine slivers

2 small dried chillies, crumbled

4oz/100g anchovies, preferably salted from Italian stores

2oz/50g unsalted butter

5fl oz/150ml double cream

9oz/250g large conchiglie

412oz/120g Parmesan, freshly grated

Cut the broccoli vertically into small pieces so that each has flower, stalk and leaf. Blanch very briefly in boiling salted water.

Heat the oil in a large heavy saucepan and fry the garlic gently until light brown. Rinse the anchovies under cold running water to remove the salt; gently remove the spine bones and heads. Add the chilli, the anchovies and butter. Mash the anchovies with the garlic using a wooden spoon; they should become creamy.

Add broccoli and cream, bring to the boil, then simmer for 6 minutes or less. Larger heads will take longer to break up. Mash or pulse-chop half of the broccoli sauce in a blender and then return it to the pan with the other half of the sauce.

Cook the conchiglie in a generous amount of boiling salted water, then drain well and mix into the sauce. Season with salt and pepper and half of the Parmesan.

Serve sprinkled with the remaining Parmesan.

SPAGHETTI AL LIMONE

This recipe comes from Genoa, which claims to have the most fragrant basil. If you can get lemons that have not been sprayed, grate a little of the zest and add to the sauce at the last minute.

Serves 6

9oz/250g spaghetti

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

juice of 3-4 lemons, the freshest possible

5fl oz/150ml olive oil

5oz/150g Parmesan, freshly grated

2 handfuls fresh basil, leaves finely chopped

Cook the spaghetti in a generous amount of boiling salted water, then drain thoroughly and return to the saucepan.

Meanwhile, beat the lemon juice with the olive oil, then stir in the Parmesan until thick and creamy. The Parmesan will melt into the mixture. Season, and add more or less lemon juice to taste.

Add the sauce to the spaghetti, and shake the pan so that each strand is coated with the cheese. Finally, stir in the chopped basil and, ideally, some grated lemon zest.

PEAS, BROAD BEANS

AND PROSCUITTO WITH

BRUSCHETTA

VIGNOLE AND BRUSCHETTA

Vignole is found on the menus of restaurants in Rome in spring and is one of the River Caf's favourite starters.

Serves 8

314 lb/1.5 kg each of peas and broad beans in their pods

8 small baby globe artichokes with their stalks

2 large handfuls fresh mint

4 tablespoons olive oil

2oz/50 g butter

2 medium red onions, peeled and finely chopped

1 thick slice prosciutto

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

8 thin slices prosciutto, cut into ribbons

extra virgin olive oil

For the bruschetta:

8 slices pugliese bread

1 garlic clove, peeled and halved

Shell the peas and broad beans and keep to one side. Blanch the artichokes whole in boiling water for 5 minutes, or until you can pull off an outer leaf with a sharp tug. They should not be completely cooked. Remove and cool. Remove the mint leaves from their stalks and chop half of them.

In a separate pan, blanch the shelled broad beans for 2 minutes.

In a large heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil with the butter, then gently fry the chopped onion until light brown. Add the peas and stir gently for a minute to coat with the oil and the onion. Pour in enough water to just cover, and place the thick slice of prosciutto on the top. Gently simmer for 20-40 minutes, or until the peas are soft, adding more water if the level falls below that of the peas and prosciutto.

When the artichokes have cooled, peel off the outer leaves, and cut off the stalk about 2in/5cm from the base. If the stalk seems stringy scrape away the outer layer; the core of the stalk is always tender. Cut off the top tough part of the cone, then slice the artichoke lengthways into eighths.

In a separate pan heat the remaining olive oil, add the sliced artichokes and fry, stirring, until they are light brown. Add the whole mint leaves, salt and pepper to taste, and a ladle of stock or water. Continue to cook for a minute or two.

Remove and discard the prosciutto from the peas; it will have imparted its flavour during the simmering. Add the artichoke pieces and juices to the peas, along with the broad beans and the chopped mint. Heat through but do not cook as this will toughen the beans. Remove from the heat and stir in the ribbons of prosciutto and about 3fl oz/85ml extra virgin olive oil.

To make the bruschetta, toast the bread on both sides and rub gently on one side only with the garlic. Pour on more extra virgin olive oil and serve with the Vignole.

CHICKPEAS WITH SWISS CHARD

INZIMINO DI CECI

Serves 6-8

6oz/175g dried chickpeas

1 large garlic clove, peeled

6 tablespoons olive oil

2lb/900g Swiss chard leaves, washed, large stems removed

sea salt and fresh ground black pepper

1 medium red onion, peeled and coarsely chopped

2 medium carrots, peeled and cut into small pieces

2 dried chillies, crumbled

8fl oz/250ml white wine

2 tablespoons sweet tomato sauce (see recipe on p61)

3 handfuls flat-leaf parsley

2 tablespoons lemon juice

extra virgin olive oil

Soak the chickpeas overnight in a generous amount of water with two tablespoons of bicarbonate of soda. Drain the chickpeas and place in a saucepan with water to cover, add the garlic, and 1 tablespoon of the olive oil. Bring to the boil, then simmer for 45 minutes or until tender. Keep in their liquid until ready to use.

Blanch the chard and chop coarsely.

Heat the remaining olive oil in a large pan over a medium heat, add the onion and carrot, and cook slowly for 15 minutes or until the carrots are tender. Season with salt, pepper and chilli. Pour in the wine and reduce almost completely. Add the tomato sauce and reduce until very thick. Add the chard and chickpeas and mix. Season and cook for 10 minutes. Chop two-thirds of the parsley leaves, and add to the mixture with the lemon juice.

Serve sprinkled with the whole parsley leaves and a little extra virgin olive oil.

The sauces at the River Caf are the most basic yet the most difficult to get right. As there are so few ingredients involved, and rarely any cooking, the quality of ingredients is essential: the olive oil must be the best extra virgin, the salt must be Maldon sea salt, the parsley must be flat leaf, and the anchovies must be salted.

In traditional Italian cooking, there are in fact few sauces for meat and fish as most often they will be served with olive oil and a generous piece of lemon. But Ruth and Rose love fresh chopped red chilli sauce with squid, or roasted red chillies in olive oil on grilled lamb or steak, and salmoriglio (oregano sauce) with monkfish or scallops. Other successful combinations include chillies on monkfish, anchovy and rosemary sauce on lamb and almost any of these sauces on grilled polenta or on bruschetta.

There are no rules or strict measures. Try the sauces with various foods, remembering that the objective is to enhance rather than mask the flavour, and that if the flavour of the sauce is intense to use it sparingly.

HOT ANCHOVY SAUCE

SALSA CALDA D'ACCIUGE E ROSMARINO

12 salted anchovy fillets

2 teaspoons finely chopped rosemary

freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons lemon juice

4oz/100g unsalted butter

Rinse the salted anchovies (which can be obtained from Italian stores) under cold running water to remove the salt. Gently remove the spine bones and heads. Pat dry and use immediately or they will turn brown and lose their flavour. If not using them straight away, cover with olive oil.

Place the anchovies, rosemary and a pinch of pepper in a mortar and pound to a smooth paste. Add the lemon juice, and stir well.

Gently melt the butter in a small saucepan, and add the anchovy paste. Stir constantly until warm but do not allow to boil.

COLD ANCHOVY AND

ROSEMARY SAUCE

SALSA FREDDA D'ACCIUGE E ROSMARINO

2 tablespoons finely chopped rosemary

12 salted anchovy fillets, prepared as above

juice of 2 lemons

5fl oz/150ml extra virgin olive oil

Crush the rosemary in a mortar, add the anchovies and pound to a paste. Slowly add the lemon juice, stirring to blend. Finally add the olive oil a drop at a time. When about half has been added, pour in the remainder in a thin, steady stream, stirring continuously.

Alternatively, you can use a food processor, although this method will produce a thicker sauce. Put the rosemary in and chop very finely, then add the anchovy and chop to a thick, fine paste. Pour the oil in slowly. Finally, add the lemon juice.

GRILLED CHILLI SAUCE

SALSA DI PEPERONCINI SCOTTATI

6 medium fresh red chillies

6 tablespoons olive oil

sea salt

2 tablespoons lemon juice

Grill the chillies until the skin is black and blistered. While they are still hot, seal in a small plastic bag or put in a bowl and cover with clingfilm and allow to cool. Pull the skins from the chillies, cut in half from top to bottom and remove the seeds. Put in a bowl, cover with oil, and season with a little salt and the lemon juice.

FRESH RED CHILLI SAUCE

SALSA DI PEPERONCINI ROSSI

6 red chillies, seeded and finely chopped

1oz/25g flat-leaf parsley, chopped

1 garlic clove, peeled and finely chopped

salt and freshly ground black pepper

4fl oz/120ml extra virgin olive oil

Combine the chillies, parsley and garlic. Season with salt and pepper, and pour the oil over the top.

OREGANO SAUCE

SALMORIGLIO

A salmoriglio is a fresh herb sauce in which the flavour is brought out by crushing the herb with sea salt. It is very intense, and should be used sparingly.

4 level tablespoons fresh oregano

1 teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons lemon juice

8 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

freshly ground black pepper

In a pestle and mortar pound the herb leaves with the salt until completely crushed. Add the lemon juice. Pour the oil slowly into the mixture. Add a little pepper. Marjoram, thyme or lemon thyme can be used instead of oregano.

TARRAGON SAUCE

SALSA DI DRAGONCELLO

12 ciabatta loaf

212 fl oz/65ml red wine vinegar

the yolks of 2 hard-boiled eggs

4oz/100g fresh tarragon, stalks removed, chopped

10 salted anchovy fillets, chopped

2oz/50g salted capers, chopped

4-6fl oz/120-175ml extra virgin olive oil

Prepare the anchovies as for the hot anchovy sauce, above. Place capers in a sieve and wash salt off under a running tap. If using bottled capers, drain and rinse.

Tear the bread into small pieces and soak in the vinegar for 20 minutes. Remove, squeeze dry and chop, ideally with a mezzaluna (a double-handled, moon-shaped cutting blade).

Mash the egg yolks with a fork.

Very gently combine the bread, tarragon, anchovies, capers and egg in a bowl. Stir in the oil.

QUICK SWEET TOMATO SAUCE

SUGO DI POMODORO VELOCE

134lb/ two 800g tins plum tomatoes, drained

3 tablespoons olive oil

3 garlic cloves, peeled and cut into slivers

sea salt and freshly ground black pepper

a handful of fresh basil or oregano leaves

Heat 1-2 tablespoons of the oil in a pan and fry the garlic until it is soft but not brown. Add the tomatoes, some salt and pepper and cook fiercely, stirring constantly to prevent the tomatoes from sticking as they break up. As they cook, the tomatoes will release their juices.

When this liquid has evaporated, add the remaining olive oil, the basil or oregano, and more seasoning if necessary. Serve hot. This sauce will keep in the fridge for a few days if allowed to cool and covered with clingfilm. !

Grilled Polenta with Prosciutto

Over grilled polenta dribble melted butter (or even creamy mascarpone cheese). Season with salt

and pepper. Then lay a few thin sheets of lean San Daniele ham across the top or, if you prefer, the fattier Parma ham. Sprinkle with a few fresh chopped herbs, such as marjoram. It is a perfect marriage.

Wet Polenta with Gorgonzola and Mascarpone.

To the wet polenta (see previous page) add (for 4 people) 4oz/100g unsalted butter and 4oz/100g grated Parmesan. In a saucepan dissolve very gently 8oz/250g torte di gorgonzola (layered gorgonzola

and mascarpone) and stir in a few torn leaves of fresh basil. Pour over the hot polenta.

Grilled Polenta with Asparagus

Polenta is lovely with young spring vegetables. Parmesan cheese slivers provide a slightly salty,

rich flavour to the sharp green vegetable. Cut off the tough stalks and boil asparagus for five minutes, toss in seasoned olive oil, and lay over freshly grilled polenta. Finish with Parmesan and olives.

Grilled Polenta with Marinated Black Olives

Use really good olives. These are Greek Kalamata, but you can buy good Spanish and French

olives. Chop roughly (for best results use the curved Italian mezzaluna blade) and mix with a few slivers

of peeled garlic, 2 small crushed dried red chillies, and lemon juice, olive oil and fresh thyme to taste.

Wet Polenta with Partridge

A hot ladleful of `wet' polenta is frequently served straight from the pan with the main course instead

of potatoes. It goes well with recipes that have a lot of juice to be soaked up, such as sausages with tomato sauce, field and wild mushrooms and game, particularly the partridge above (for recipe see page 57) .

Grilled Polenta with Fresh Chilli and Rocket

For 4, take 5 or 6 large fresh chillies. Cut lengthwise and remove seeds and membranes. Slice finely. Mix in a bowl with 2 or 3 tablespoons of olive oil, the juice of half a lemon, salt and pepper. Judiciously spoon over grilled polenta slices. Add some rocket salad leaves, tossed in seasoned olive oil.

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