grains and beans

Polenta perfect for cold weather

Polenta and braised chickenCold weather makes me want comfort food.

One of my favorite foods, warming, soothing and satisfying, is polenta.

Today I was wondering what I could cook for dinner that would be wonderful as well as hearty and healthy.  I also wanted a relatively quick meal since my afternoon was busy with work and errands.

Polenta seemed the perfect choice.

A Northern Italian peasant food, polenta reminds me of a Southern staple from my childhood, grits. I loved grits, so polenta with its similar creamy-grainy texture quickly became a favorite.

Ancient origins

The grain dish that would become known as polenta was made from wild grains and later from primitive wheat, faro, millet, spelt or chickpeas.The ground grain was mixed with water to form a paste and then was cooked on a hot stone. This simple meal may have pre-dated leavened bread.

Polenta, or pulmentum as it was known, was the simple and filling fare of the Roman Legions as well as the poor. The Saracens introduced buckwheat to Italy and grano saraceno, with its distinctive flavor, is still popular in Tuscany,

In the 15th or 16th century, maize was brought to Northern Italy from the New World and landlords exploited the new crop forever influencing Italian cuisine.

Making polenta is far easier than it would appear. Traditionally, the dish was made with a round bottom copper pot called Paiolo and required constant stirring and attention. But, soft polenta, achieved with a 3 to 1 ratio of water to polenta, can be made with in a saucepan with occasional stirring with good results.

How to serve polenta

Served simply with grated cheese, polenta can be either a main meal or a side dish.  We enjoy simple braised meats and vegetables with polenta or for meatless meals, we top polenta with sauteed mixed mushrooms. If there are any leftovers, I put them in a rectangular container to mold for later uniform slicing. Sliced polenta is tasty grilled and makes a great side for fish.

Basic polenta recipe

This basic recipe is easy to prepare. For more flavorful polenta, substitute one cup of water for vegetable or chicken stock.


1 cup polenta

3 cups water

1/2 teaspoon salt

2 tablespoons butter

Bring water to a boil, then reduce to a simmer. Stirring constantly, pour in polenta steadily to prevent lumps..While polenta thickens, continue to stir.  Soft polenta is ready when water is absorbed and simmering produces thick bubbles on the surface. The consistency should be loose rather than stiff. Finish by stirring in the butter. Cooking time ranges from 20 to 50 minutes.  Serve immediately in shallow bowls.

Saturday night eat-in: Spinach Mushroom Risotto

Spinach Mushroom Risotto
Risotto is easy and classic with limitless possibilities.  The Italian rice - Arborio, Vialone Nano and Carnaroli needed to prepare this dish is readily available almost everywhere. 

For years I was intimidated by this wonderful Italian specialty.  But once I began experimenting with risotti, I discovered it was as simple as good timing and a strong stirring arm.

Risotto is a great dish for sneaking vegetables into unsuspecting kids - diced spinach, pureed winter squash, even mushrooms.   The kids gobble up the Parmesan cheese laden rice with its hidden nutrients and are none the wiser that they've eaten something healthy. 

Rachel Ray takes risotto one step further with a Risotto and Mini Meatball dish that is a bit too cute for my taste, but is sure to make the kids ask for seconds.

A basic risotto recipe can be altered simply by changing the intingolo, the sauce or cooked ingredients added to the risotto.  Risotti are prepared following the same basic procedure, with variations according to the intingoli.

For this recipe, you'll require two pans - one for the intingolo and the other for the basic risotto.

Basic Risotto Recipe

Serves 6 to 8

  • 1½ cups Arborio rice
  • 1 quart chicken stock
  • ½ cup white wine
  • 1 medium shallot or ½ small onion, chopped (about ½ cup)
  • 3 tablespoons unsalted butter
  • 1 tablespoon olive oil
  • ¼ cup grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese
  • 1 tablespoon Italian parsley, chopped
  • Kosher salt, to taste


Heat the stock to a simmer in a medium saucepan, then lower the heat so that the stock just stays hot. Note: Liquids added to the risotto should be warm rather than cold.

In a large, heavy-bottomed saucepan, heat the oil and 1 tablespoon butter over medium heat. When the butter has melted, add the chopped shallot or onion. Sauté for 2-3 minutes or until slightly translucent.

Add the rice to the pot, stirring briskly with a wooden spoon until the grains are coated. Don't let the rice turn brown.

Add the wine, stirring until the liquid is fully absorbed.

Then add a ladle of warm chicken stock to the rice, stirring until the liquid is fully absorbed.Continue adding ladles of stock and stirring the rice while the liquid is absorbed. As it cooks, the rice will take on a creamy consistency as it begins to release its natural starches.

Continue adding stock, a ladle at a time, for 20-30 minutes or until the grains are tender but still firm to the bite, without being crunchy.

If you run out of stock and the risotto still isn't done, you can finish the cooking using hot water. Just add the water as you did with the stock, a ladle at a time, stirring while it's absorbed.

As the last stock is being absorbed, stir in the desired intingolo.

Finally, stir in the remaining butter, the Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese and the parsley.  Correct to taste with Kosher salt.

Serve immediately since risotto turns glutinous if held for too long.  Properly cooked, the risotto should be soft and creamy.

Spinach Mushroom Intingolo


  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1 cup Cremini mushrooms, coarsely chopped
  • 1/2 cup, red pepper, diced
  • 4 cups spinach, washed & coarsely torn

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the Cremini mushrooms, red pepper and garlic.  Saute until tender. Then add the spinach and continue cooking until the spinach has wilted, about 3-4 minutes.

Eating in: Saturday night dinner

My smart and thrifty mother raised three teenagers who loved to eat on a single mom's income. 

I learned early the lessons in economy which have served me well in the kitchen and developed a preference for making many of the foods that are purchased pre-packaged, which here means overprocessed.  

No, I'm not making my own bread each week - though I could and occasionally do. But I'm clever enough to know which tasks to tackle and which tasks to leave to the masters. 

So, what to do when faced with a pinched wallet and champagne tastes? Eat in!

While I realize restauranteurs will cringe when I say this, but if your budget needs a reality check, treat yourself to more dinners in. I'm not advocating giving up a weekly meal out (if you can afford it), but I am saying you can have a fantastic meal in for half what you spend at a restaurant.  

My Sunday morning posts are dedicated to the Saturday night eat-in. Last night I was in the lazy, one dish mood - the perfect mindset for risotto where you get your vegetables and grains all in one flavor-packed plate.  

Last night's menu:

Wild mushroom and carrot risotto

Vanilla ice cream with bittersweet dark chocolate sauce


2007 William Cole Alto Vuelo Pinot Noir

Light ruby red in color with notes of cherries and thyme on the nose. The palate is layered with primary flavors of strawberry and herbs, accompanied by secondary flavors of smoke and subtle oak. A light bodied wine, with silky tannins and a lingering finish. A beautiful example of cool climate Pinot Noir, should cellar well for several years. The wine is aged for 12 months in French barrels (Pop the Cork Wines)

You can have your cake and eat it too.

Risotto is wonderful winter fare


(photo by Ian Britton/

Rice trumps potato - at least to my way of thinking. Sure, I love a delicious dollop of garlic mashed potatoes as much as the next starch fiend, but rice wins hand down it comes to its nimble versatility.

Risotto is a favorite winter rice dish of mine, classic Northern Italian fare distinctive for its creamy finish and the individual bite in each kernel of rice. Made from rice or riso native to Italy, risotto has its traditional versions like Risotto Milanese, but there are infinite variations - limited only by the quick imagination of the cook. 

Since I picked up some lovely mushrooms in the market - maitake, shiitake, baby bella, and oyster - the logical next step was to combine the two.

Don't grab just any bag of rice and start rattling your pots and pans. Risotto is made from riso or  rice native to Italy, and like the dish itself, there are many varieties.  This special Italian rice consists of two distinct starches - a quite soft exterior which melts away, creating the creamy texture in risotto, and an extremely hard starch kernel, which gives the grain dish its firm bite.

The three main types most often used are Arborio, Carnaroli, and Vialalone Nano.  Almost everyone is familiar with the widely used Arborio, a superfino (which denotes the small grain size) rice; however, many cooks prefer Carnaroli, also a superfino, and Vialone Nano, a semifino.

Typically, I use Arborio or Carnaroli when making risotto.  In researching, Vialone Nano, which you can find in my market, I discovered it is the perfect riso for cooking a risotto which has delicate ingredients with robust flavors - like humble and earthy mushrooms. 

The traditional rice of the Mantua and Veneto regions, Vialone Nano (nano is Italian for dwarf) is a round, "half-long" grain rice that can absorb twice its grain weight in liquid.  It's ideal for a velvety risotto with an al dente bite, and pairs well with vegetables, meats, seafoods. ghly 20 minutes.

For this recipe, I use a two-pan method. Serve with roasted mixed vegetables such as cubed winter squash, brussel sprouts and apples.

Risotto with Mixed Mushrooms

Prep time: 20 minutes

Cooking time: 20 minutes

Serves Four

4 cups of chicken stock

1/4 cup dry white wine, room temperature

1 tablespoon olive oil

2 tablespoons butter

1 cup of Italian rice

1/2 onion, diced

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup thinly sliced  mushrooms (maitake, oyster, shiitake & baby bella)

a pinch of saffron threads

1 cup Parmigiano, freshly grated

Bring chicken stock to a boil, then reduce to low to keep warm. Heat the olive oil over medium heat, adding the oinon and garlic to saute until just soft before adding the mushrooms.  Continue sauteeing for an addition 2-3 minutes. 

Meanwhile place rice so it just covers the bottom of a large pan over low heat for about five minutes to heat.  Add sauteed vegetables to the rice, mixing so the grains are coated. 

To the rice, add the stock, one ladle at a time, stirring continously until until the liquid is absorbed. Add the saffron just before adding the wine, which should be your last liquid. This process takes about 20 minutes.

Rice should be tender yet firm with a creamy finish before adding the cheese snd the butter. Serve with roasted mixed vegetables such as cubed winter squash, brussel sprouts and apples.