Yard-long Beans and Walnuts with Garden Greens
Polenta Torta with "Apron Greens"
August 26, 1998
No one can sell a dish like Paula Wolfert. When she gets enthusiastic in a cooking class, her eyes widen, she leans forward so that her whole body is telling you how incomparable, how superb, how absolutely delicious what she is about to show you will be -- how once you taste the results you'll forget your troubles and march forward into the travails of life with renewed vigor.
She manages to convey this raw, lusty love of food in her writing, too, and has just published a new cookbook, Mediterranean Grains and Greens. Look at the introduction to a ratatouille that uses a quart of oil. Yes, I've given you all the bad news first. Wolfert promises that at the end you'll get most of it back to reuse for other vegetable dishes, and that the ratatouille itself will be so fabulous (as with "absolutely delicious," Wolfert is not shy about using "fabulous" -- she even puts it into the recipe's title) that you'll never return to making another kind. It takes a long time, and it uses up a lot of the late-summer vegetables that cooks will frantically be trying to showcase in the next few weeks.
Mediterranean Grains and Greens is the latest installment detailing Wolfert's food adventures around the shores of everyone's favorite food-inspiring sea. (To learn more about her and the many books she has written, which are the subject of a cult among food lovers and food writers, visit her new Web site.) I happen to have been along on one or two of these trips, and simply marvel at how much Wolfert gleaned and took home. We were slugs by comparison. (She has probably figured out how to cook slugs, too -- after all, the book includes a section on home-grown snails).
Of course, the focus is on many of the wild greens that have been used for millennia in the countries around the Mediterranean but are only now becoming available in this country -- unless you know how to recognize borage, Goldberger purslane, mallow, bladder campion, or Roman pimpernel in your own garden. Never fear. Wolfert gives more widely available substitutions for each green.
Who could resist a bosomy polenta? I can't, just as I can't resist following Paula on her tireless treks, which luckily enough I can do at my computer and at the stove.
Discuss this column in the Arts & Literature forum of Post &
Previously in Corby's Table:
Corby Kummer on the ultimate guide to eating your vegetables.
Jasper White gets up close and personal with lobster claws, tails, and tomalley.
A rare book that shows Italy unromanticized -- and more appetizing.
New reasons not to get out of bed in the morning.
In Ruth Reichl's new memoir, Tender at the Bone, food is about more than eating.
South America's well-traveled cuisine.
Just in time for the holidays, a look back over the year's best.
A book to help one get wise to the whys of cooking.
More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound
-- Corby Kummer
Excerpts from Mediterranean Grains and Greens, by Paula Wolfert (HarperCollins)
My friend Adrienne Zausner, an excellent home cook, shared this recipe with me. Adrienne spends a good deal of time in Europe, frequents three-star restaurants, and knows all the great chefs. When I tasted her ratatouille, I was overwhelmed. It turned out to be the recipe of Mme. Saucourt of the famous and now defunct Hotel Mas des Serres in Saint Paul de Vence. Adrienne had loved the dish, Madame given her the recipe, and, after I begged a bit, Adrienne passed it on to me.
Quelle recette! The verbal instructions that Madame gave Adrienne were detailed and uncompromising:
"The onions must be the fresh sugary kind you find in the summer market. Don't use red garlic, only white, and don't use an eggplant that has a purple peduncle because it will be bitter. Whatever you do, don't reduce the recipe.... Part of the great taste is due to the quantity. Most important, make this dish only in late summer when all the vegetables are 'sun-kissed."'
At first glance, the recipe made me reel. My heart fell when I saw the amount of fine extra-virgin olive oil required, noted the quantities, and contemplated the time-consuming handwork. But this is absolutely the best ratatouille recipe I know, head and shoulders above any other. My theory is that when you find the holy grail of a dish, you must respect it and never corrupt it. As for the oil, at the end of cooking you'll actually get most of it back to be used again for cooking vegetables and general sautéeing.
If you're still with me, I guarantee you a great ratatouille that you can keep for up to a week in the refrigerator. Hot, it goes beautifully with roast lamb. Cold, it makes a great first course or salad. Try spreading leftovers on a sheet of pastry, crisscross with anchovies, then bake in the oven as a little tart. Bon appetit!
Prepare at least one day in advance, giving the ratatouille time to mellow. Note that the cooking time is 4 hours.
1. Stem and peel the eggplant. Cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes and place them in a deep kettle filled with very salty water. Keep submerged with a non-corrodible plate for at least 1 hour. Stem and peel the zucchini. Cut the flesh into 1-inch cubes and place in a deep colander. Toss the zucchini with salt and let stand for 30 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, in a very large heavy skillet or heavy-bottomed roasting pan cook the chopped onions and 1/2 cup of water in 1 cup olive oil until the water has evaporated and the onions are soft and golden, about 30 minutes. Add the garlic, chopped herbs, bay leaf, sugar, salt, pepper, and 1 cup of the wine. Cook over medium heat, stirring often, for 10 minutes.
3. Coarsely chop the tomatoes with their skins in the work bowl of a food processor. Add to the skillet and continue cooking at a simmer 1 1/2 hours. Whenever the onion-tomato mixture starts to stick or burn, "spot deglaze" with a few tablespoons water and scrape with a wooden spoon.
4. Grill the peppers; when cool, peel, stem, seed, and cut into small pieces. Set aside. Rinse and drain the eggplant and zucchini and lightly press dry with kitchen toweling.
5. Slowly heat the remaining 3 cups of olive oil in a wide pan or fryer until medium-hot. Add the zucchini in batches, and fry until golden on all sides. Transfer the zucchini with a slotted spoon to a colander set over a bowl to catch any excess oil. When all the zucchini has been fried, fry the eggplant in the same manner. From time to time return the "captured" oil in the bowl to the oil in the pan
6. Spread the zucchini, eggplant, and peppers over the simmering onion-tomato mixture and pour in the remaining wine. Cover and cook at the simmer for 1 1/2 hours. From time to time remove the cover to help evaporate some of the liquid. Place a colander over a large bowl and pour the contents of the skillet into it to drain. Stir carefully to avoid crushing the vegetables while trying to encourage any trapped oil and juices to drain. Quickly cool down the captured juices in order to remove as much oil as possible. If there is a lot of juice, boil it down until thick. Reserve all the frying oil and the oil from the vegetables for some other purpose. Pour the juices over the vegetables, taste for seasoning, add vinegar, if necessary, and carefully stir to combine. Serve hot or cold. Sprinkle with fresh herbs.
The so-called yard-long bean, readily available in Asian markets, makes an excellent substitute for asparagus beans or any of the thin, very long flavorful Mediterranean beans called fagiolino dall'occhio in Italy, taze borulce in Turkey, and ambelofassoula in Greece.
When buying, choose beans that are pencil thin, young (under a foot long), floppy but still firm. These beans aren't actually "a yard long"; if they were they'd be much too tough.
When young these beans are usually treated like string beans around the Mediterranean -- cooked until just tender and served in salads. On the Greek island of Astapalya they're chopped with onion and fresh mint, shaped into fritters, then fried and served with a garlicky skordalia sauce. At the Apulian restaurant Al Fornello da Ricci they're cooked until meltingly tender, then tossed with pasta.
Long beans are extremely popular in Turkey. In the Black Sea town of Amasra, once an important port for trade with Genoa, whole potfuls of long beans are cooked until tender, then tossed with olive oil and garlic for a dish called taze fasulye makarnasi or "fresh macaroni-style beans." And there are other Black Sea dishes in which these long beans are diced as small as grains of rice, cooked until soft, then combined with slow-cooked onions and rice for a regional pilaf.
This Turkish long-bean recipe is from the town of Bodrum on the Aegean coast. It's a lively, refreshing salad redolent of lemon juice and is a popular mezze. In the words of my Turkish translator, Maja: "No matter how much red pepper you put in, there must be an equal amount of lemon. In Bodrum, where we serve this salad as a mezze, it must be very sour, so sour you want to puck mouth." Sort of like eating sushi with too much wasabi -- painful and also wonderful. Diner, be warned!
Polenta, I've discovered, is not everybody's favorite around the Mediterranean. A Greek friend, pointing to a beautiful photograph of the stuff, exclaimed, "Cornmeal mush! You've got to be really hungry to eat that." He went on to explain that as a teenager during the Greek Civil War he had eaten nothing but polenta three times a day for nearly a year and hoped never to dip his spoon into a bowl of it again.
But to others polenta is a gift from God. As Luigi Merotto, a driver from Veneto, put it to me, "Polenta is our bread. We cannot imagine a meal without it."
Northern Italians understand it best -- as a culinary canvas, a soothingly textured dish with a unique flavor that they then embellish with other food. As Italian food expert Darrel Corti explained to me, "Italians admire those who make something special with polenta. In the Marches they put a rich sauce of livers and meat on it; in Venice they make a crunchy addition like deep-fried baby shrimp over white cornmeal; in the Piedmont they fatten it up with cheese, cream, butter, and eggs ... and so it goes."
I'm sure many readers, like myself before I started on this book, are put off by polenta, figuring that the amount of work required -- all that constant hand-stirring -- is barely worth the candle. Well ... give polenta a chance. It can be a lot easier than you think, and once made there are marvelous things you can do with it.
For me the turning point was my discovery of a new way of preparing it, a way of making polenta as good as it gets with virtually no stirring. Italian polentaphiles will no doubt scoff. But read on.
I went through a rite of passage to learn this method, learning much more about polenta along the way. The no-stir method here is the only method I now use. It's ideal for the home cook but not for a restaurant cook who needs to feed a large number of people.
Let me tell you first what the no-stir recipe does not require: no stirring the traditional way; no sputtering from the pot; no steamy taste and instant polenta flavor from the covered-dish-in-the-oven method; no loss of aroma from the steaming-in-a-double-boiler method; no seizing-up or gumminess because your cornmeal cooked too fast; no raw corn flavor due to undercooking; no more worries that if you add too much water after thickening you'll lose creaminess; no more worries about starting the emulsion process and then keeping it going; and no more worries that your polenta will get too dry.
The downside: Cooking polenta using the no-stir method will take twice as long as the traditional method -- an hour and a half instead of forty-five minutes. But the entire cooking process requires absolutely no work.
And wait till you see and taste your result: a well-cooked polenta with an appetizing sheen -- glossy, soft, tender, and fluffy, with the voluminous "bosomy" quality a well-made polenta should have. No excessive grittiness under the teeth from undercooking, nothing tasteless or gummy. Just the fresh taste and aroma of good corn. No, there are no absolutes with polenta, but this method brings you as close as any.
And where did I discover this wondrous no-stir process? Believe it or not, on the back of a bag of Golden Pheasant brand polenta, a product distributed by the Polenta Company of San Francisco to the northern California market. (A similar recipe appears in Michelle Anna Jordan's book Polenta.) Though it was news to me, the recipe is not at all new; it has appeared on bags of Golden Pheasant polenta for the last twenty years!
"It's an old paesan's mother's recipe from Tuscany," Ed Fleming, owner of the Polenta Company, told me when I called to inquire where he got it. (Golden Pheasant is available from Corti Brothers by mail order.)
Buying Polenta A good bag of polenta or stone-ground cornmeal should smell bright and sweet. A bad bag has a stale old smell and a cardboard taste.
Not all cornmeal is the same: Quality of meal is the most important factor in making a delicious polenta. Polenta or cornmeal comes in fine, medium, medium-coarse, and coarse grinds. The texture varies, depending upon how and where the corn was milled. Some varieties of cornmeal such as Moretti Polenta imported from Italy absorb more water than others. I've tried to standardize all the recipes in this book for medium- to coarse-grind cornmeal, or a combination of coarse and fine grind.
Keeping Polenta Keep fresh cornmeal in a dry cupboard up to a few months to avoid rancidity. If it's been ground with the germ (the label will tell you) store it in the freezer, since refrigerated cornmeal can turn moldy.
|2 tablespoons butter or oil||7, 8, 9, or 10 cups water (see Notes)|
|2 cups medium-coarse or coarse-grind cornmeal, preferably organic stone-ground cornmeal||2 teaspoons salt|
|For very soft polenta (polentina):||6 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal|
|For soft polenta:||5 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal|
|For medium polenta:||4 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal|
|For very firm polenta:||3 or 3 1/2 parts liquid to 1 part cornmeal|
|4 cups lukewarm water||Freshly ground black pepper|
|1 cup fresh, organic, stone-ground, medium- or coarse-grind cornmeal||1/4 teaspoon crushed pepper flakes|
|1 teaspoon salt||1 clove garlic, peeled|
|1 1/2 pounds mixed tender greens: arugula, peppercress, spinach, kale, plus a few sprigs of dill or fennel||1/2 cup grated pecorino Romano cheese|
|3 tablespoons olive oil|