Saturday, October 23, 2010

Polenta with Shrimp and Sausage

When I lived in Florence in the early 1960s, for a time I shared a maid named Aurelia with my painter friend, Flo Shoul.

Aurelia, a small woman with a hooked nose and a hump on her back, came from the Florentine suburb of San Casciano. A friend who had also grown up there remembered her and told me that during the Second World War Aurelia was the only person to go out when bombs were falling, because, she said, she was too ugly to be killed.

Twice a week, Aurelia spent a few hours changing my linen, doing my washing, sweeping and dusting and polishing, but she often mentioned that she was famous for her polenta and would like to fix it for me one day.

She kept my apartment on the top floor of a 19th century building on Via dei Vecchietti fairly spic and span. She chattered while she worked and listening to the narrative of her life, I learned a number of colorful Florentine expressions that were never used in polite company.

Every weekend, Aurelia took the train to a town on the Adriatic coast to visit her uncle, who, she claimed, had a title, was, in fact, a prince. There was nothing about Aurelia that suggested aristocratic connections, but I had heard that many Italian titles were not to be taken very seriously. I knew one pretentious young man named Baroncelli who was able to purchase the title “Barone,” and did so probably because “Barone Baroncelli” had such a distinctive ring. So, I thought, maybe Aurelia’s uncle really was a prince of one kind or another.

Il mio zio, il principe,” as she referred to him, was elderly and not in good health and Aurelia was, she told me, the only one in the family who was kind to him. He had, she said, two very mean sisters who lived nearby, but who rarely came to see him.

Once after a weekend with her uncle, Aurelia told me that she had something very important to tell me, but that it was an enormous secret and I could not even hint of it to anyone. “I must find a very discreet lawyer,” she said, “un avvocato molto discreto.” “Why?” I asked. “Because,” she said in a whisper, “My uncle has decided to adopt me!” “Aurelia! That means you will become a principessa!” She smiled.

There was, she confided, one condition that she had to agree to before her uncle adopted her, and it had to do with his mean sisters. “After I inherit,” she said,” I must hire a long black car with a uniformed chauffer and, wearing a new pair of white gloves, go to visit his sisters. During the visit I must not take off my gloves nor sit down.” She obviously was relishing the prospect of putting the mean sisters in their place.

After she had been working for me for some time, Aurelia began to act strangely. Instead of spending several hours cleaning my apartment, she would stay the entire day. Since I paid her by the visit and not the hour, I didn’t really care, but it was disconcerting to have her there from 9 in the morning until early evening, finding things to do that did not really need to be done. I called the friend I shared her with and Flo reported the same bizarre behavior. “I can’t get rid of her!” she said. Eventually, Flo sent her Italian boyfriend, Aldo, to ask questions in the quartiere where Aurelia lived. It did not take him long to solve the mystery. To earn a little extra cash, Aurelia was renting out her room by the hour to the neighborhood whores and could not return home until their business was done.

Finally, one day when a friend from Livorno was coming to lunch, I told Aurelia that she could make her famous polenta for us. About half an hour before the guest was to arrive, I left Aurelia setting the table while her pot of polenta bubbled away in the kitchen. I went out to buy wine and bread for the meal, and when I returned my guest was at the front door. We entered the apartment together and went into the dining room. As we approached the table, I noticed, sitting next to my plate, Aurelia’s upper and lower dentures, which, I assume, she had taken out for a rest and forgotten. “Aurelia,” I called to her, “it‘s such a nice day, I think we’ll eat on the terrace instead.” A change of venue was definitely called for if we were to regain our suddenly lost appetites. I had a hard time getting out of my mind the image of Aurelia’s false teeth next to my plate even as we ate her excellent polenta on the terrace with a beautiful view over Florence. I don’t know if she ever became a princess, but I never asked her to prepare lunch again.

Here is my favorite way to prepare polenta, the delicious Italian cousin of grits:

1 lb raw extra large shrimp, peeled and de-veined
2 links of good quality smoked sausage, thinly sliced
2 tablespoons Extra Virgin Olive Oil + one tablespoon
1 clove of garlic, sliced
2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup milk
½ cup wine
1 cup chopped parsley

For the polenta:
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup of polenta or coarsely ground corn meal
4 tablespoons butter
1 cup cream cheese

While the water is coming to a boil in a large saucepan, brown sausage and garlic slices in the olive oil in a large skillet, being careful not to burn the garlic. When sausage and garlic are well browned, remove sausage to a plate and discard garlic. Toss shrimp in skillet in the now flavored oil until they are pink and beginning to curl. Remove to plate with sausage.

When the water has come to a boil, add salt and slowly whisk in the polenta or corn meal. Reduce the heat to a simmer and stir in butter. Stir occasionally while it cooks. It should be ready in about 30 minutes.

While the polenta is cooking, add the extra tablespoon of olive oil to the skillet. Slowly stir in flour over a medium heat until it begins to lightly brown. Stir in wine and then the milk while stirring vigorously until the sauce is smooth and thick.

When the polenta is tender, stir in the cream cheese over low heat.

Add the sausage and shrimp to the sauce in the skillet and gently reheat.

Sprinkle the parsley over the mixture, and serve immediately over mounds of polenta.

Serves 4

Saturday, October 16, 2010

Casa Sant'Alessandro, Pomarance, 1973

Terry Hughes and Isaac Bitter, contadini finti, during the vendemmia, 1973

Girando, un contadino serio, during the vendemmia, 1973

Sunset (or was it sunrise?) at Pomarance, Late Summer, 1973

Eugenio and lamb, Casa Sant'Alessandro, Pomarance, 1973

Simonetta and daughter Anna, Casa Sant'Alessandro, Pomarance, 1973, the year of the famous vendemmia

Florence, October 2009

A cat in the garden of Villa I Tatti, where we had an al fresco lunch, October 15th, 2009

A view from the villa at Grassina, October 2009

Eugenio, Simonetta, John and Joel, in front of Santo Spirito, Florence, October, 2009

Eugenio's Lasagna, Grassina, October, 2009

Eugenio's Lasagna

When I first lived in Italy, I had a very romantic idea of what the annual vendemmia, the grape harvest, must be like, and when people spoke of it, I imagined a pleasant outing under blue skies, shears in hand, going through vineyards in the company of picturesque peasants, snipping bunches of luscious grapes from the vines. I thought it would be a delightful lark.

In 1973, I got to take part in this annual ritual when I rented a farmhouse, Casa Sant’Alessandro, on the property of my Florentine friends, Simonetta and Eugenio Biliotti, near Volterra. I was there to finish in peace and quiet a student guidebook to Italy that I had been commissioned to write. The stone house was about a mile from the main villa where Simonetta and Eugenio spent time when they were not in Florence. The casa had running water and electricity and a great deal of charm, and in those days that was all that I required. I was there, off and on, from spring through autumn, and except for a few weeks when a shepherd and his sheep occupied the ground floor of the house, it was very peaceful and very quiet.

I had no telephone, no television; my only connection to the outside world was a Grundig shortwave radio that gave me news and music. My main way of communicating with the villa was by tying messages to the collar of “Brie,” a friendly hound that had nothing better to do than wander back and forth between the little house and the large one. Sometimes messages arrived within minutes; sometimes they took hours. That summer, the big news story from the U.S. was the investigation for fraud of Vice President Spiro Agnew. When I heard early one morning that he had resigned, I looked outside and saw Brie on my doorstep. I wrote the news on a piece of paper, attached it to her collar, and told her: “Vai alla villa!” She wagged her tail and eventually ambled off. Simonetta and Eugenio had a houseguest: Terry Hughes, a correspondent for the Australian Broadcasting Corporation. Terry, who usually was in the middle of breaking news stories, was sitting on the steps of the villa having his first cup of coffee when Brie arrived, and was amazed to learn this important information from a scrap of paper delivered by a dog.

Terry was back for another visit in autumn when it was time for the vendemmia and was as enthusiastic as I was about taking part in it. In fact, he had brought Mickey Mouse T-shirts for Simonetta’s several guests to wear while harvesting the grapes…why, I am not sure. The peasants, for whom the vendemmia was serious business, were not exactly welcoming to us amateurs, and the image of Mickey on our chests did nothing to win them over. Once the harvesting began, we understood why. It was not easy work, and we were mostly in the way. But we stumbled along the rows of vines, clipping as best we could the clusters of grapes and dropping them into the plastic bins we dragged behind us. Finally when the sun was about to set, we put down our shears and, exhausted, hiked back to the villa…and that is when the magic began. Eugenio and Simonetta had put up a long table in the hall of the villa and suddenly large platters of steaming lasagna and bottles of red wine, made with grapes from a previous harvest, were served and everyone who had been laboring in the fields sat down and drank and feasted. We were all ravenous and it was, by far, the most delicious lasagna I had ever tasted.

Eugenio, who over the years has developed from a very good cook to a superb and dedicated cook, says he does not remember what kind of lasagna he made on that occasion, but here is the recipe he prepared for us when last October we stayed with him and Simonetta in their 16th century villa in Grassina, just outside of Florence. It is probably even more delicious than the one I remember so fondly.

Eugenio uses RANA pre-cooked lasagna noodles, which may be difficult to find. If you must use dry pasta, de Cecco is a good brand to use. You may prepare the lasagna pasta while the sauce is cooking:

1 lb of dry lasagna sheets
Bring 6 quarts of water with one teaspoon of salt and one tablespoon of olive oil to a vigorous boil, and cook for the time recommended on the package. Stir them often to prevent them from sticking to each other. When the sheets are al dente, drain in a colander and place the sheets in a pan of cool water to keep them from drying out until you are ready for them.
For the sauce:
1 lb and 1 ounce of ground beef
¾ lb of good pork sausage, taken out of its skin
1 medium red onion, minced
1 stalk of celery, minced
1 small carrot, minced
½ teaspoon of chopped rosemary
1 cupful of dried porcini mushrooms, rehydrated with hot water
1 large can of peeled tomatoes
½ cup of extra virgin olive oil
1 cup of dry red wine
1 teaspoon of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly ground pepper
½ cup of chicken broth
1 cup of grated very good Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese.
Six extra pats of butter to be added later

Heat the olive oil in a large pot and sauté over a low flame, the onion, celery and carrot until they have softened ( about 2 minutes), then add the ground beef and sausage, stirring frequently until almost all the liquid has evaporated. Stir in salt & pepper, and, before the mixture begins to stick to the bottom of the pan, add the wine and keep stirring until it is almost all evaporated. Add the chopped rosemary and after 20 seconds the peeled tomatoes and the chicken broth. Cover the pot and let simmer over a very low flame for at least 40 minutes, stirring occasionally.

For the Béchamel:
5 tablespoons of butter
4 tablespoons of all-purpose flour
4 cups of milk
2 teaspoons of salt
½ teaspoon of freshly grated nutmeg

Melt the butter over medium-low heat in a saucepan. Add the flour and stir until it is smooth.
Increase heat to medium and, continuing to stir, cook until the mixture turns a light golden color (6 to 7 minutes).

Heat the milk in a separate pan over medium-low heat until it is almost at a boil, then whisk in the hot milk a cup at a time to the butter mixture until it is very smooth. Cook for another 10 minutes while stirring constantly, then remove from heat and stir in salt and nutmeg. If the sauce is too dense, stir in a little more heated milk.

Smear the bottom of a large, flat baking dish with butter. Then place a sheet of the pasta in the dish, cover with spoonfuls of the sauce, then the Béchamel, then the cheese, then another sheet of the pasta, and sauce and Béchamel and cheese, repeating these layers until you have filled the pan.

Place in 350 degree oven for about 20 minutes. Serves 8