Monday, January 26, 2009

Polenta Soup

We eat a fair amount of polenta here--always have. Early on, I liked the idea in Carlo Middione's book, The Food of Southern ItalyItalian Cooking of pouring the batch onto a slab, saucing it, and putting it in the center of the table for everyone to share. True, with small kids it could have been a bit unhygienic. But for me it fell into the cozy food category--like eating Raclette fireside.

A couple years ago dear friends gave me Paula Wolfert's book, Mediterranean Grains and Greens. Tucked in towards the back was her recipe (adapted from the back of the Golden Pheasant polenta bags--we'd had that when I was a kid, but I don't think anyone ever tried it) for baking polenta. Now I had never been a very good polenta maker--I just cooked it until I was ready to eat, stirring the whole time. The polenta spat at me (rushing my readiness), and when it seemed thick (but well before the prescribed hour of stirring), I called it good.

Baking polenta was a revelation. You simply combine 2 cups polenta, 2 teaspoons salt, 8, 9, or 10 cups of water (or stock), and a couple tablespoons of butter or olive oil in a greased pan. I use a big open Le Creuset gratin dish. The bigger the surface area, Wolfert suggests, the better the polenta. It bakes for an hour and 20 minutes at 350 degrees, comes out for a quick stir, and then goes back into the oven for 10 more minutes. That's it. It's kind of a miracle--no lumps, and the flavor is wonderful. As the polenta cooks, it toasts as well, deepening the flavor.

So now that it's so easy we eat it even more often. Leftovers were always put away, and then fried on the second day. Sometimes for breakfast with eggs, sometimes for lunch with a little cheese. But recently my mother mentioned, quite nonchalantly, as if it was something she'd told me years ago, that you could just reheat the cold polenta and it would melt back into its old self. I should have known that--I'd long since figured out you never need to scrub out the pan--if you soak it, the next day you can peel back the polenta that just the night before had seemed fused indelibly to the pan.

This led to a little experimentation, and finally, to polenta soup. Now when I make polenta, I always try to have enough for the next day's soup. Tonight's was one of the better ones. I started by cooking about 1 cup of cranberry beans. While they simmered, I defrosted about 5 cups of chicken broth, and dumped the leftover polenta (about 4 cups)in. In the soup pot I browned some onions, and then added sliced chard stems, and a little of the bean water. The stems braised a bit while I whisked together (more or less--small lumps are no problem here) the polenta. When it reached a consistency I could live with, I dumped it into the soup pot. Sliced chard went in as well, and a few minutes later, the cooked beans. Once the chard was cooked enough, I declared the soup done. Delicious--just a bit of salt this time. Some red pepper flakes would be nice as well.

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