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Corby's Table
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Adventures in Grains and Greens
Fabulous Ratatouille
Yard-long Beans and Walnuts with Garden Greens
No-stir Polenta
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.

grgrbk picture 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.

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Paula Wolfert

And, of course, her recipes are absolutely delicious. I'm very glad she has given me a way to serve "yard-long" beans, as she calls those intriguing but puzzling ropelike string beans I see at Asian markets, and that her way -- a peppery salad with chopped walnuts -- includes plain garden greens. And I'm grateful that she has solved the ageless stirring-of-polenta question. Double the time and cut out all the work, she says, and you'll have polenta that's "glossy, soft, tender, and fluffy, with the voluminous 'bosomy' quality a well-made polenta should have."

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 & Riposte.

Previously in Corby's Table:

  • Vegging Out -- July 1998
    Corby Kummer on the ultimate guide to eating your vegetables.

  • America's Favorite Crustacean -- June 1998
    Jasper White gets up close and personal with lobster claws, tails, and tomalley.

  • A True Taste of Tuscany -- May 1998
    A rare book that shows Italy unromanticized -- and more appetizing.

  • Comfort Food -- April 1998
    New reasons not to get out of bed in the morning.

  • Survival Cooking -- February 1998
    In Ruth Reichl's new memoir, Tender at the Bone, food is about more than eating.

  • A Moveable Fiesta -- January 1998
    South America's well-traveled cuisine.

  • The Joy of Cookbooks -- December 1997
    Just in time for the holidays, a look back over the year's best.

  • Culinary Arts & Sciences -- November 1997
    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)

    Madame Saucourt's Fabulous Ratatouille

    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!

    Makes 1 gallon serving 16 to 20

    5 pounds eggplant 1 teaspoon salt
    5 pounds zucchini 1 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
    5 pounds fresh onions, peeled, halved, and thinly sliced 2 cups dry yet fruity white wine such as a Provençal Bellet
    1 quart extra-virgin olive oil 2 pounds red ripe tomatoes, cored and seeded
    2 tablespoons crushed garlic 5 pounds red bell peppers
    2 tablespoons chopped fresh mixed herbs: rosemary, savory, peppermint, thyme, and celery A few drops of red wine vinegar
    1 bay leaf 3 tablespoons chopped mixed herbs for garnish: basil, parsley, thyme, and celery
    1/2 tablespoon sugar

    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.

    Sautéed Yard-long Beans and Walnuts With Garden Greens

    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!

    Serves 6

    1 firm bunch (1 pound) asparagus beans or Chinese yard-long beans 1/2 teaspoon mildly hot red pepper such as Turkish pepper or Aleppo red pepper, or a mixture of hot and sweet Hungarian paprika
    3 tablespoons olive oil 3 tablespoons mild vinegar or verjuice
    Salt 2 cups torn garden lettuces
    1/3 cup coarse chopped walnuts About 2 tablespoons fresh lemon juice

    Wash the beans; trim the ends and cut each bean in thirds. Heat the oil and sauté the beans for an instant in a wide, deep skillet, stirring. Add the salt and 1/4 cup water. Cover the skillet and cook the beans for 3 minutes. Uncover; add the walnuts, red pepper, and vinegar; and cook until the green beans are just tender, 1 to 2 minutes. Stir in the greens and lemon juice and stir once to mix. Let stand until ready to serve at room temperature.


    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.

    No-stir Polenta

    Here's the basic no-stir method used for all the polenta recipes in this book.

    I cook polenta in a 12-inch nonstick, heavy-gauge aluminum "Peking" pan developed by Joyce Chen. Originally designed for stir-frying, it has a long handle that makes it easy to turn the polenta out onto a wooden peel or into an oiled mold. Because of its exceptional width and rounded sides, it exposes a larger amount of cornmeal to oven heat, which I find coaxes more flavor from the corn by "toasting" it as it cooks . A 4-quart ovenproof saucepan can substitute. When you make a very soft creamy polenta (
    polentina) to be served with, say, a stew, simply pour the polenta into a deep, warm serving bowl where it will hold its heat, then top it with the stew. Or else serve the stew, vegetable, or whatever on the side. Chefs call this kind of steaming-bowl-of-polenta presentation a "landing."

    Serves 6

    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

    1. Preheat the oven to 350 degrees. Grease a 12-inch-wide, heavy ovenproof saucepan. Add the cornmeal, water, butter or oil, and salt and stir with a fork until blended. (It will separate, but don't worry -- it won't come together for more than half the cooking time.) Bake uncovered for 1 hour and 20 minutes.

    2. Stir the polenta with a long pronged fork, correct the salt, and bake 10 minutes more. Remove from the oven and let rest 5 minutes before pouring onto a wooden pizza peel or into a buttered bowl.

    NOTES TO THE COOK: To halve the recipe, use an oiled 8-inch-wide saucepan. Reduce cooking time to 45 minutes. Stir once and bake another 10 minutes or until the polenta is cooked.

    The consistency of the polenta or cornmeal is a factor in deciding how much liquid to use. Here's a chart for using medium- or coarse-grind cornmeal:

    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

    With thanks to Ed Fleming, owner of the Polenta Company, for permission to adapt their recipe.

    Keeping Cooked Polenta What if you want soft polenta one day and firm the next? Use half as a "landing" for a stew or sauce, and set the remainder in a double boiler to continue cooking, uncovered, an additional 30 minutes. It will become thicker and can then be turned out and used for crostini, or, if allowed to become very firm, can be cut into dumplings for boiling.

    If well-wrapped, polenta made with water, cornmeal, and salt can be kept 3 to 4 days in the refrigerator. However, if you add some milk (for extra flavor) the resulting polenta won't have the same keeping qualities.

    Polenta Torta with "Apron Greens"

    This polenta torta makes a very substantial side dish or may be served as a light supper dish on its own. "Apron Greens" are the wild and garden greens that Mediterranean women gather, tucked in the front pocket of their aprons. Often a woman's apron pocket will be divided into several compartments for "sweet" greens, "bitter" greens -- and perhaps a third for wild mushrooms.

    Serves 4

    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

    1. About 2 hours before serving, preheat the oven to 350 degrees.

    2. Prepare the polenta: Place the water, cornmeal, and salt in a well-oiled, ovenproof saucepan. Set in the oven, uncovered, to cook for 50 minutes.

    3. Meanwhile, wash the greens, cut away the thick stems, and chop the leaves coarsely. Heat the olive oil in a 10-inch skillet, add a pinch of black pepper, pepper flakes, and garlic and cook for 1 minute. Tilt the skillet and transfer half the oil to a 5- or 6-cup baking-serving dish. Discard the garlic. Brush the peppered oil over the bottom and inside of the serving pan. Tilt to recoup a tablespoon of "red" oil and reserve for sprinkling over the final dish.

    4. Add the chopped greens to the skillet, cover, and cook over moderate heat for 10 minutes or until they are tender, stirring from time to time so that the leaves cook evenly. Season with salt and pepper. Increase the heat at the end to evaporate any liquid. Makes 1 1/2 cups.

    5. When the polenta has cooked 40 minutes, stir in half the cheese and continue to bake 10 more minutes. Reheat the greens. Remove the polenta from the oven, quickly spread half the polenta into the prepared serving dish, distribute the greens on top, and cover with a layer of the remaining polenta. Let the torte rest for 5 minutes. Scatter remaining cheese on top and drizzle with the reserved "red" oil; return to the hot oven for 10 more minutes. Serve hot.

    With thanks to Anne-Marie Lombardi for sharing this recipe.

    Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee.
  • More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

    Copyright © 1998 by Corby Kummer.
    Recipes from Mediterranean Grains and Greens, by Paula Wolfert. HarperCollins: New York 1998. Hardcover, 367 pages. ISBN: 0060172517. $35.00. Copyright © by Paula Wolfert.
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