Food: Tutti juicy

Savoury braises to mop up soft, creamy polenta; Osso bucco is one of the best examples of a wet, braised dish. And it is Italian through and through Photograph by Jean Cazals
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Indy Lifestyle Online
I suppose crazes occur for the simple reason that when something good is discovered, everyone wants a taste of it, even if it is not their cup of tea.

The two biggest current food crazes are, without doubt, two of the most mundane things we cooks can produce: mashed potato and polenta. The former probably scores more points in the end, because you can do many more sexy things to it (filthy, actually) than you can to the more reserved polenta.

We are seriously into polenta just now. Well, we should be, because the rib-sticking qualities of simmered cornmeal are a fine insulation in the winter - though it was also on everyone's menu during last summer's endless heat wave, being dutifully stirred in heavy pans by sweating cooks. To be fair, it was more often left to cool and set and then cut into slices or triangles and fried or grilled. Croutons were made of it and put into salads (naturally including slivers of sun-dried tomatoes), inappropriate fried slices found themselves accompanying pieces of grilled fish, and a soft scoop of polenta would be found sitting uncomfortably next to a couple of plain lamb chops. Little wonder that some people just cannot see what all the fuss is about.

To eat polenta on its own, unadorned, can be a dull old feast. Clearly the main reason for its existence is as a partner to something wet and savoury in the extreme. It is true that a bowl of soft and creamy polenta - particularly when made with added milk, topped with a knob of the finest butter and plenty of freshly grated Parmesan - can be a most satisfying mound. But introduce it to osso bucco (braised shin of veal), a stew of wood pigeons, or even a bowl of simmered meatballs, and you suddenly realise what all the ballyhoo is about.

So it is not really polenta itself that I want to write about, but what you would like to eat with it. Osso bucco is one of the best examples of a wet, braised dish. And it is Italian through and through. They seem to have an inherent understanding of braising - almost wet roasting (one of my favourite descriptions). Although it can be tricky to get it just right, it is one of the simplest cooking processes once you understand the principles.

Osso bucco with white wine, sage and lemon, serves 4

The effort involved in preparing a dish such as this is minimal. However, the care and craft of cooking it are, essentially, a labour of love.

The method is based on the Italian way of in bianco - in other words, without the use of any aromatics or flavourings such as the usual tomato, onion, garlic, etc. Just white wine. The meat is lightly floured, coloured in a mixture of olive oil and butter (the latter to help the meat glisten and froth), the excess fat tipped away and wine intermittently introduced over a slow and gentle period of time, say an hour or so, until the juices are syrupy and well flavoured.

The sage and lemon are added for a final flourish, to make the dish sing. An alternative sprinkling of gremolata (chopped parsley, garlic and lemon peel) can also cause molto cantare.

85g/3oz butter

4 tbsp olive oil

900g-1.35kg/2-3lb veal shin (get your butcher to cut it across the bone into 8 small, or 4 large pieces)

salt and pepper

flour

1 bottle dry white wine (you may not need all of it, so make it decent enough to drink)

juice 1 lemon

3-4 sprigs sage

Melt the butter and olive oil in a shallow but deep pan, big enough to hold the pieces of meat in a single layer. Heat the fats until they begin to turn golden. Season the veal with salt and pepper and dip lightly in the flour. Shake off the excess and put the pieces into the pan. Fry on both sides until each surface is crusty and golden brown. Reduce the heat and pour in a couple of glasses of wine. Allow to bubble up, then turn down the heat even further. Cover the pan, and simmer so gently that the liquid shudders from time to time. Turn the meat over once the wine has reduced somewhat, and add a little more wine, along with the lemon juice and sage. Cover, and braise for a further half hour. Check occasionally that the liquids have not evaporated too much. If so, add more wine. The total cooking time should not be longer than one-and-a-half to two hours.

Serve with:

Polenta, serves 4

This polenta recipe is soft and floppy, for eating straightaway, and when simply prepared with butter and cheese, it is divine in itself. Should you wish to allow it to cool, however, and reheat it by grilling or frying, then this recipe, which is rather more runny than usual, will still set firm and can be cut into any shape you like. Pour on to a cool surface or into a rectangular, shallow tray.

2 litres/312 pints water

2 tsp salt

310g/11oz coarse-grained polenta, in a bowl

85g/3oz hard, unsalted butter, thinly sliced

about 55g/2oz freshly grated Parmesan

Bring the water and salt to the boil in a large, heavy-bottomed pan. Take a large, solid whisk and start to stir the water. With your other hand, allow the polenta to flow from the bowl in a fine, steady, sand- like stream. Do not stop whisking until all the polenta has been added. Turn down the heat to low, continue whisking for a few moments and place the pan on a heat-diffuser pad or, at least, on a very low heat. Change to a wooden spoon and continue stirring. Once the polenta starts to come away from the sides of the pan, it is ready to serve.

Either serve in a warmed dish, or pile directly on to the plate with the veal. Make a shallow indentation into the surface of the polenta and fill with the slices of butter. Strew with Parmesan in a generous manner. If you want an even richer version, extra butter can be beaten into the polenta before serving, but it is still good to add extra thin flakes on top too.

Polpettine, serves 4

These Italian meatballs are not just any old lumps of minced meat in sauce. In fact, the same sort of wet roasting mentioned above - more of a wet fry, in fact - takes place during cooking. The flavourings that I like to use, and add to the minced meat, are suitably savoury: chopped anchovy, lemon rind, Parmesan and herbs.

for the meatball mixture

85g/3oz fresh white breadcrumbs

5 tbsp milk

450g/1lb minced veal

175g/6oz piece belly pork, rind removed, minced

1 large egg, beaten

grated rind 1 lemon

2 heaped tbsp flat-leafed parsley, chopped

1 tbsp fresh oregano or marjoram, chopped

55g/2oz freshly grated Parmesan

10-12 anchovy fillets, cut into pieces

a little plain flour

3-4 tbsp pure olive oil

55g/2oz butter

275ml/10fl oz dry white wine

6 tbsp passata (strained tomatoes, sold in pasteurised cartons)

1 clove garlic, peeled and chopped

Mix the ingredients for the meatballs in a large bowl. Form into small balls about 4cm/112" in diameter. Then, with your finger, push a small piece of anchovy (up to half a fillet, depending on your love of anchovies) into the centre of each and re-form, pressing between your fingers to flatten slightly. You should end up with about 24 meatballs. Roll in flour and set aside on a tray.

Take a large, deep-sided frying pan and melt the oil and butter until foaming, then carefully add the meatballs in one layer. Turn the heat down and gently fry until nicely coloured on one side. Turn over and continue frying. Once the other sides are coloured too, tip the pan slightly and remove most of the fat with a large spoon. Pour in about a third of the wine and allow to bubble. Shake the pan occasionally and allow the wine to reduce to almost nothing. Pour in more of the wine and turn the meatballs over. Cover, and simmer for 20 minutes on a very low heat.

Take off the lid and remove the meatballs with a slotted spoon. Put on to a serving dish and place in a warmed oven. Turn the heat up to high and add the rest of the wine, the passata and the garlic. Reduce until saucy and sort of syrupy. Spoon over the polpettine, strew with a little chopped parsley and serve with more of that polenta - which is just as nice if it has been left to set, then grilled. A little squeeze of lemon juice over the meat adds zing

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