Polenta à la Marlena: Food for the Soul

“Stirring polenta counterclockwise is to flirt with calamity.”

Such are the words of author Marlena de Blasi, relaying old Umbrian folklore of kitchen wisdom and superstition in one of her bestselling memoirs. For several years now, ever since reading The Lady in the Palazzo (the first book of hers I discovered, though it actually comes third in her series), the words echo in my head each time I’m standing at the stove, stirring the pot. Clockwise.

It is a July evening and I have decided to make polenta for my supper. Most frequently made with coarsely ground cornmeal, the warming dish is a thick and creamy pap that fills you up and feeds the soul with goodness. In some ways, it seems an odd choice for a summer meal, yet here at my little writer’s cottage on the central California coast, as cool fog rolls in to shroud trees and houses, polenta sounds just right.

I recently enjoyed dinner at some friends’ house in Carmel Valley, seated out on the terrace, savoring a fair evening as vividly-colored hummingbirds zoomed loudly about on their way to and from the feeder. As they often do, my hosts invited me to harvest some greens from their impressive organic garden that is currently bursting with all sorts of bounty. Netted to protect it from the marauding and ravenous wild turkeys, the chard and kale is a verdant riot of abundance. There is butternut squash coming in, with the promise of corn and tomatoes soon to arrive in copious amounts, as well.

Nothing, simply nothing, beats eating fresh from the garden or foraged wild. That indescribable but very real element—call it prana, chi, ki, shakti, mana, or simply ‘life force’—infuses the food and our body with vitality.

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Stirring polenta in a copper risotto pot

Polenta topped with sautéed, garlicky greens is one of my favourite dishes; the sort of rustic humble fare that I prepare most nights and never tire of. Unfussy. Wholesome and delicious. With the gift of chard and kale direct from my friends’ garden, my life feels blessed with the best sort of abundance.

So it is that I find myself in the kitchen, cooking polenta in the Italian hammered copper pan in which I normally make risotto, stirring the stoneground organic maize only in a clockwise direction, and thinking of Marlena de Blasi.

She’s been on my mind lately, Marlena… or Chou, as she insists I call her. I’m savoring her latest book, The Umbrian Thursday Night Supper Club, recently released in the UK and Europe, and scheduled to appear in America later this year. (It’s available as an e-book in the States but not yet as a bound, printed version.)

The book arrived earlier this week as a gift from Marlena, herself. We met unexpectedly met in May—the crowning moment in a series of events and twists so seemingly random but connected, our meeting could only be deemed as Fate (recounted in my SAJ post, “A Paris Encounter“).

When we chatted that late afternoon at Les Deux Magots, the iconic Left Bank café, as the bells of St.-Germain-des-Prés tolled loudly, she promised to send me a copy of her newly minted book. Several weeks later, returning home to Umbria from her travels, she wrote me a lovely email saying that a “pachetto” was underway to me.

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A present from Marlena de Blasi

When the bright yellow parcel from Italy arrived, I was as excited as a child on Christmas morning. Opening it, I discovered that the pachetto contained not only the book (with a dear inscription to me), but a cloth-wrapped tin cradling a home-baked, broken up delight.

Fragrant with butter, sugar and rosemary, crunchy with toothsome cornmeal, and lightly perfumed with anise seed, it’s something between a flatbread and a biscuit or cookie. It is neither a biscotti nor a cake. Honestly, I’m unsure exactly what to call it—all I know is that the salty, sweet, herbaceous and buttery thing is utterly delicious.

Repeatedly I have gone into the kitchen and opened the Italian tin, nibbling at another piece of the mildly addictive, crunchy goodness inside. Greedily, I’ve gobbled up the sweet, crunchy crumbs, licking them from my fingertips, shaking my head and chuckling in disbelief. Marlena de Blasi—Chou—made this for me.

As I confessed in that SAJ post in May, I’ve often imagined her—a chef, food writer, cookbook author, expatriate, fellow sensualist—as something of a kindred spirit. We adore the same manner of rustic food, and although she never uses the word soul, in her own way, she’s always writing about it.

Mind you, I was cooking polenta long before I encountered Marlena’s books (and because of my Ayurvedic background, always stirring in a single direction), but many times, as I’ve tended the creamy golden porridge at a low simmer—moving the wooden spoon clockwise—I’ve imagined cooking together. Or foraging for fine ingredients at market… such an alluring fantasy.

I made polenta last week as well, when visiting guests from Wales confessed that they didn’t know what it was and had never eaten it. I scraped the cooked porridge into a shallow baking dish, smoothed the top and allowed it to set, then topped it with fresh buffalo mozzarella. After grilling it just until the cheese was melted, I layered on sliced heirloom golden tomatoes and dressed them with a thick ribbon of Moroccan green charmoula—a lusty, unctuous sauce of fresh herbs, olive oil, garlic, toasted spices and a hint of anchovy, pounded together using mortar and pestle.

Smiling, I watched the guests devour every bite and nearly lick their plates clean.

Alone now for a few more nights before returning to Hawaii to join my beloved, I prepare the polenta in a traditional, soft-serve way, the manner I like best. My writer’s cottage kitchen is modestly appointed, and as I ladle the thick porridge into a cereal bowl, I lament once again that I don’t have shallow, broad-rimmed ones to hand—preferable for soups, risotto, polenta, pasta… anything and everything, really.

I crown the cooked cornmeal with the sautéed greens from my friends’ garden, to which besides a generous amount of garlic I have added a squeeze of lemon, a few grindings of fresh black pepper, and a liberal dose of chile flakes for heat and seductive intrigue. With a crackle and hiss, a sprinkling of warm, toasted pumpkin seeds garnish the affair, their earthy scent mingling enticingly with aromas of chiles and garlic.

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Organic polenta and spicy greens, a modest but satisfying supper

Lighting the solitary beeswax taper and then sitting down at table, a glass of nicely crafted Oregon Pinot Gris to accompany, I quietly give thanks for the meal—and for the goodness of life despite its challenges. For a moment, I gaze out the window at the misty evening, observing the fog trailing ghostlike amid the dark sentinels of trees in the neighborhood.

Somewhere in the world it is summer, I muse.

Picking up my spoon, secure in the knowing that I have stirred the polenta only in clockwise direction and hoping—trusting—that I may continue to avoid calamity, I dip into the warm deliciousness that awaits.

It’s a rustic supper worth savoring, the sort that nourishes the soul, and I think even Marlena would approve.

Buon appetito.


Classic Polenta

Ingredients:

4 cups (1 litre) cold water

1 cup (165g) coarsely ground, organic cornmeal

¾ teaspoon sea salt

2 tablespoons (30g) butter

1 ½ oz (40g) genuine Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated, about ½ cup

Method:

Boil the water in a large saucepan. Add the salt and whisk in the cornmeal. Bring again to the boil, then lower the heat to lowest setting and simmer, stirring continuously with a wooden spoon for at least 20 minutes (arguably much longer; much depends on the grind of the cornmeal you are using). Cook the pap until the grains have opened up to a smooth texture, the porridge is thick and creamy, and pulls away from the sides of the pan.

Remove from heat and stir in the butter and cheese and a grinding of black pepper.

Serve immediately, drizzled with best quality olive oil and your choice of topping (see below). Alternatively, transfer to a buttered 9 x 13 (23 x 33cm) baking dish, allow to set, and cut into triangles.

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Sautéed Garlicky Chard

Ingredients:

one large bunch of fresh, organic chard

3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil

2-4 cloves of garlic, chopped

Juice of half a lemon

sea salt and freshly ground pepper

generous pinch of chile flakes

(Optional: organic pumpkin seeds, toasted, for accompaniment)

Method:

If opting for the pumpkin seeds as garnish, place them in a small, heavy pan over medium heat, and toast them until fragrant and browned, shaking the pan regularly to prevent their burning. They will likely begin to pop and expand. Remove promptly to a plate to cool.

With a knife, sever the chard leaves from their stalks and set them aside. Warm the olive oil in a broad pan on medium-high heat. Slice the stalks in 1/2-inch pieces, chop the garlic, and add them both to the warmed oil. Add a pinch of sea salt and stir until they soften a bit, a couple of minutes. Coarsely chop the chard leaves and then add them to the pan, along with the lemon juice, and stir until they have wilted. Add the chile flakes, a grinding of fresh black pepper, and adjust seasoning as needed.

(Cook’s note: it is the garlic, lemon and chile that elevates the greens from being healthy and rather bleak to something utterly delicious.)

Serve atop the polenta, garnished with the pumpkin seeds.

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