We’re going out tonight, a rare event, and the first time that we’re taking Roomie anywhere.
It’s dinner at some friends’ downtown attic apartment, and polenta e ragù is on the menu apparently, so end-of-winter comfort food, both traditional enough to be chic, and filling to boot.
We’ve known this couple since we first came to Bologna, having met them through one of Stefi’s translation clients at the end of the ‘nineties.
In fact, it’s been so long that, way back when, when our second daughter was about to be born (she’s now a medical student) we dumped first daughter, who would have been about Roomie’s age, with these two kind friends on our panicked drive to the hospital for the birth (they have a daughter a couple of years older, so were the only people we trusted to cope with a disorientated infant.)
Anyway, we eat with this family a couple of times a year.
Every single time my wife reminds me that we should take something, and every single time I assure her that I’ll get a nice bottle of wine, or perhaps a couple of bottles as there’ll be four of us, perhaps a red and a white, to be on the safe side.
At which point my wife, who drives on these rare occasions, reminds me that our hostess doesn’t drink alcohol, and I shrug and point out that it’s the thought that counts, and in any case, that means the two bottles will stretch further…
And each of these many conversations, spread over nearly a quarter of a century, proceeds with Stefi suggesting we could buy a kilo of over-priced, artisanal icecream INSTEAD OF WINE, and me pooh-poohing her proposal but, in the end, giving up and agreeing to buy both wine AND icecream, so spending at least double what politeness requires.
And yet this time?
Polenta is one of those foods that people either love or hate.
It’s basically maize flour, roughly milled, and boiled and stirred until your best pot has been destroyed, you wish you’d never seen a kitchen, and all you have to show for an hour of hard manual labour is a steaming yellow mess.
Look at the recipes online and this looks like one of those much-loved Italian dishes that no one (other than the odd vegan daughter) could possibly object to. Chic food for chic people.
But delve a little deeper and you’ll discover the associations, memories, and folklore that are way more important than the actual look and taste of the dish itself.
And which are way more impactful on how you might feel about being offered a plate of it at a Friday evening dinner party.
Just a taster for you – I’ve been told on multiple occasions that polenta (the yellow maize porridge, remember) used to be served not on plates but poured onto the kitchen table top, or a large board which served the same purpose.
The cement like fluid would spead to form a wide yellow ‘puddle’, perhaps an inch thick, then quickly solidify.
Mamma (or more likely, Nonna) might then – all things being well with the family budget- spoon a little ragù (meat sauce) into the very center of the blob, equidistant from the hungry horde.
Not too much, mind, as meat would have been scarce (though, who’s to say which particular meat the ragù contains??)
And then, each family member, had to eat their way through the filling yellow goo before arriving at the meaty reward.
If you were slow, you might not get there at all, meaning that some voracious sibling or extended family member, who knew how to shovel polenta down faster, would claim your share of the prize.
People used to eat cats, someone will recall being told. And rats, someone else has heard. In Ferrara, I’ll add, they still do eat frogs and snails! (It’s OK to be horrible to the Ferraresi…)
Yuk, everyone will say, toying with their polenta with varying degrees of enthusiasm but at least thankful there are no snails on it.
By the way, there are loads of things you can add to polenta while you cook it, probably as many as there were desperate cooks trying to make the stuff more palatable.
I’ll reel a few off, off the top of my head: liquids such as white wine or stock; fats, so butter, olive oil, whatever you have; and of course cheeses, gorgonzola in the mountains, parmesan down here on the ground floor.
Don’t bother, is my advice, as nothing seems to affect the final result overmuch. And the cook can eat the cheese, and drink the wine, as a reward for all that stirring…
You can serve whatever you feel like with/on top of your maize porridge, though ragù or sausages are the obvious ones.
Perhaps something with mushrooms? Not fish, though. Polenta is an inland stable not a coastal thing.
Over dinner last night, my baby son Tom (voice of EIN, see below) was saying how he used to love the school meal polenta, in particular because no one else would touch the stuff, so there was always more available.
Like bresaola, he added, there was always loads of that left. But bresaola, I objected, that’s good food! It’s expensive.
We hypothesized that the local kids wouldn’t have known what it was (slices of cured beef), given that, around here, if it isn’t part of a pig, or made from milk, it’s not recognizable as food.
Where was I?
What to take to Friday night’s dinner? Wine, I opened, expecting the usual response. A bottle of red and a bottle of white, OK?
If my poor wife is being forced to eat southern European peasant fare this evening, then it looks like our hostess won’t be getting hand-made icecream for dessert.
Win win for me: there’ll be plenty of polenta and wine, and my wallet will take less of a hit!