Previously in Corby's Table:

"Pasta With a Passion" (April 4, 2001)
Corby Kummer offers selections from Piero Selvaggio's The Valentino Cookbook—"one of the few Italian cookbooks I plan to keep on my shelf."

"Israel on a Bun" (February 28, 2001)
Corby Kummer looks at Joan Nathan's new book on the food of Israel, a country not exactly known for its cuisine.

"Napa Valley Blend" (January 31, 2001)
Corby Kummer on Terra: Cooking From the Heart of Napa Valley, and its authors' unique mix of Mediterranean style with a Japanese sensibility.

"Revelations of Greece" (December 20, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Aglaia Kremezi's revelatory new Foods of the Greek Islands, a book that offers "a short course in how Greeks cook for themselves."

"Confessions of a Cookie Eater" (October 4, 2000)
Corby Kummer makes a shameless plea to readers of Nick Malgieri's new Cookies Unlimited.

"The Bygone World of the Bialy" (August 31, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Mimi Sheraton's The Bialy Eaters, a food critic's account of her seven-year, still-incomplete search for the origin of the distinctive little onion roll that is often mistaken for a bagel.

"The Chowder King" (July 26, 2000)
Corby Kummer on Jasper White's 50 Chowders, the latest from Boston's master seafood chef.

"Simply Summer" (June 22, 2000)
Corby Kummer satisfies his fresh-herb lust with a new book by Lisa Cowden, Ladle, Leaf, & Loaf.

More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound

Atlantic Unbound | May 9, 2001
Corby's Table
A Fortunate Crossroads


Penne with Cinnamon Ricotta
Ginger Polenta
Grado Fisherman's Stew

La Terra Fortunata

red Plotkin made Italy his own in his authoritative Italy for the Gourmet Traveler (1996), a guide to restaurants, food shops, hotels, and the inner life of dozens of cities. Since then he's decided to share his own Italy—first in Recipes From Paradise (1997), a kind of love letter to Liguria, the region on the Italian Riviera where he has lived and written in a seaside apartment made fragrant by the gently pungent small-leaf basil that makes the world's best-known pesto, and now in La Terra Fortunata, a portrait of a very different sort of region.

Like Liguria, Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which is in the northeast corner of Italy bordering Austria and Slovenia, was formed by poverty and hard work. In both regions women not only tended the fires while their husbands were gone for months at a time—at sea or working in remote countries to bring back money for the family—but also chopped the wood for the fires and planted the fields and tended the animals for the food they cooked. This tough reality is at odds with the gorgeous and clement Mediterranean seaside of Liguria, but more in keeping with Carnia, a rugged area of Friuli-Venezia Guilia in the foothills of the Alps.

From Atlantic Unbound:

Corby's Table: "Paradise Found" (October 29, 1997)
Fred Plotkin explains why Liguria's is "the great undiscovered cuisine of Italy."
Plotkin may have lost his heart to Liguria, but his soul resonates with Friuli-Venezia Giulia, and he has written a book that is a model for all writing on Italy. Few regions have been as burdened with the explosions of history as Friuli-Venezia Giulia, which is "fortunate" for the resourcefulness of its extremely hardworking, extremely warm people and also buffeted by the fortunes of its location at the crossroads of western and eastern Europe.

Rome placed great importance on this region, and only when the Roman stronghold of Aquileia, in the lower reaches of Friuli Venezia-Giulia, was sacked as the empire fell did Rome lose its dominance. Aquileians fled to a few unpromising islands to the south, and the city they hastily founded became Venice. Nowadays any tourists who find their way to Friuli-Venezia Giulia have usually traveled two hours north from Venice. The Austro-Hungarian empire had its only port in Trieste, the cosmopolitan city that bested Venice in commercial importance. Hemingway and Joyce lived and wrote in Trieste, which Plotkin says was long the New York of Italy, and a hundred years ago its literary cafés were the intellectual crucibles of Europe. Many of the most protracted battles of World War I were fought in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. Just twenty-five years ago much of Friuli was gravely damaged by earthquakes. Forced cosmopolitanism and a long history of poverty have produced one of the worthiest and most complex cuisines in Italy, and the cool, hilly land produces some of the world's great white wines—the country's most renowned—and many superb red ones, too.

I treasure Plotkin as a peerless friend as well as colleague, and am enormously gratified to report that the people, food, and wine of Friuli-Venezia Giulia have inspired him to write better than he ever has—with an easy command of a wealth of information that he lays out with his customary directness. His introductory guide to the way Italy eats (information you are to "toss away" when it comes time to learn how Friuli-Venezia Giulia eats) could preface many a cookbook on Italian food. Anyone can learn much from his guide to buying and storing and opening and serving wine, and the notes at the end on several dozen wineries are a model of informed and opinionated concision.

The number and variety of recipes are immensely generous and thorough, like the people of the region. Here is homemade liptauer, ricotta enlivened with paprika, mustard, capers, parsley, and scallions; fresh figs and the sweet prosciutto of San Daniele, the only rival in silken softness to the famous Parma prosciutto and many would say its superior; and a pillow of pumpkin gnocchi with poppy-seed sauce.

It was hard to choose just a few dishes to exemplify such a diverse cuisine. Here are three that feature signal flavors. Penne with ricotta and cinnamon could hardly be simpler—the sauce for the penne pasta is just the other two ingredients plus an optional sprinkling of sugar. Rich, yes, as are many of the other recipes, which surprisingly often have butter and cream—this very northern region is well above the theoretical olive-oil line, after all. Polenta with ginger is one of the few combinations that Plotkin himself created—and it proved to be so convincing that several natives who were his dinner guests thought they remembered it as a traditional dish. Richly flavored white fish such as monkfish, grouper, halibut, cod, or Chilean sea bass sauteed with garlic, white wine vinegar, and a startling amount of black pepper is the ultimately well-balanced creation of Livio Felluga, one of the grand old men of winemaking in the region and the patriarch of a marvelously warm and hospitable family. (Terre Alte, from Livio Felluga, is a blend of white grapes that goes with almost anything, and Plotkin calls Sossò one of the world's only Merlots that could be called great.)

Even if you're not a cook, even if you'll never go to Friuli-Venezia Giulia, it's worth buying this book just to read "Meeting Giulia Cimenti," about a legendary eighty-year-old cook in the mountains of Carnia who had eluded the author during most of his nine years of research. The meal he finally had when she was in the kitchen ("In my notepad, with heavy underlining, is a word I seldom use: Fabulous") and his encounter with her afterward crystallized his admiration for and even awe of Friulians. This is a woman so eager and able to learn and prepare the next dish that near the close of a long, dignified conversation she lets Plotkin know that it's time for her go back to the kitchen. "Work is good for you," she tells him. "We should tell men that." Everyone can learn a good deal from the people and food and wine of this star-crossed region.

Corby Kummer

Excerpts from La Terra Fortunata, by Fred Plotkin

Penne con Ricotta e Cannella

Penne with Cinnamon Ricotta

This dish is popular in Carnia, where ricotta is so loved, and down through Pordenone and into the Veneto. It introduces an imported spice to a local flavor. In the past, this sauce might have flavored polenta, and it still can, but nowadays you are likely to find it blended with pasta. In Friuli, the ricotta is naturally sweet, so added sugar is unnecessary. If you are using a bland cheese, consider adding at most just a pinch of sugar. The cinnamon should be a subtle note rather than a dominant flavor. This is a rich dish, and a small portion can go a long way.

Serves 6 to 8

Pinch salt

1 pound/ 450 g penne

12 ounces/ 335 g fresh ricotta

2 teaspoons/ 10 g freshly ground cinnamon (adjust to taste)

1/2 teaspoon/ 2.5 g sugar (optional)

Set a large pot of cold water to boil. When it reaches a full boil, add a pinch of salt. When the water returns to a boil, add the penne and cook until al dente, according to the package instructions. One minute before the penne are supposed to be done, taste one and decide for yourself how much more cooking you need.

While the pasta is cooking, prepare the sauce. Put the cheese into a large bowl (big enough to contain the hot pasta). Stir the cheese with a wooden or plastic spoon for a minute to make it more creamy. Add the cinnamon and stir in well. Taste for sweetness and, if you wish, stingily add a little sugar and cinnamon. Add 1 tablespoon/ 15 ml hot water from the pasta pot and stir it into the cheese to make it creamier. You might wish the sauce to be even creamier, in which case you should then stir in another tablespoon/ 15 ml hot water.

Once the pasta is cooked, drain in a colander but leave a little hot water clinging to the penne. Transfer to the ricotta sauce, toss well, and serve immediately.

Wine: Ribolla Gialla, Pinot Blanco, or Tocai

Polenta con lo Zenzero

Ginger Polenta

This is not, as far as I know, a traditional dish in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. However, the method and flavors are very much in the tradition, and I devised it for a couple of reasons. One was to see how creative cooks in the past may have taken what was available to them and fashioned something new. The second reason was to develop a polenta that would go well with fish. I like the results, and I have served it to enough people from the region who think it must be traditional because they understand the logic behind it. Typically, I use white polenta, although it is also delicious with the yellow variety. In the latter form, I have served it as a side dish with braised beef and game and roasted duck and goose. The most natural seafood matches seem to be scallops, mussels, and shrimp, although cod and monkfish also work very well. Oily fish (salmon, tuna) do not work, nor do delicate fish, such as sole and flounder.

You can make the polenta with fresh ginger, candied ginger, or ground ginger and butter. In each case, use my recommended amount of ginger as a point of departure to find the intensity of ginger flavor that pleases you. Fresh ginger is the most vivid in the mouth and you should use as much as you think would let you have the suggestion of ginger but still taste the complex flavor of the polenta. Candied ginger has a special taste because there is sugar in it. This is a really wonderful combination, especially with meat dishes. Powdered ginger will give more of a burn in the mouth. If you find that pleasing, go for this option. I think it is the least interesting choice of the three, but I know that not everyone likes to work with fresh ginger.

Serves 6 to 8 as a main dish, 10 to 12 as a side dish

1 recipe polenta (3 cups, uncooked)

2-inch/ 5-cm piece fresh ginger, or 2 tablespoons/ 30 g candied ginger, or 1 heaping teaspoon/ 6 g ground ginger and 2 tablespoons/ 30 g unsalted butter

Make the polenta according to the recipe instructions. About 10 minutes before it is done, prepare the ginger.

If you are using fresh gingerroot, peel the ginger using a vegetable peeler. Grate it into a little dish using a grater with a very fine mesh. I usually take a piece of plastic wrap and hold the root with it so the smell does not get on my hands. If you are using candied ginger, mince with a knife as finely as possible. If you are using ground ginger and butter, melt the butter carefully in a little saucepan. Remove the pot from the heat and stir in the ginger.

Stir the prepared ginger thoroughly into the polenta and keep stirring until the polenta has separated from the sides of its pot.

Serve the polenta hot or cooled.

Wine: When served with fish, Pinot Grigio is a magical combination. When served with meat and game, Pignolo is best and Merlot is very good, too.

Boreto Graisan

Grado Fisherman's Stew

Livio Felluga is one of the grand old men of wine making in Friuli-Venezia Giulia. He is widely admired and much loved throughout the region, and his were among the first wines to be acclaimed beyond northeastern Italy. This is his version of the classic fish dish from Grado. Suitable fish for this stew include monkfish, grouper, shark, turbot, eel, halibut, cod, and Chilean sea bass (whose real, more evocative name is Patagonian toothfish). It is not a soupy stew, as you might expect, but one in which the fish absorbs the bracing flavors of vinegar and lots of black pepper. When we were preparing this in his kitchen, Livio kept insisting, "Ancora del pepe—non c'è ne abbastanza!" (Add more pepper—there's not nearly enough!) You should use a very free hand in adding pepper. Livio insists that this stew be served with red wine. I was lucky to have it with his marvelous barrel-aged Merlot called Sossò.

Serves 4 as a main course, 6 to 8 as a small plate

8 (1/4-pound/ 115-g) pieces of fish, preferably with skin on and bone in (cut about 1 1/2 inches/ 3.75 cm thick)

Sunflower or delicate olive oil

3 garlic cloves

2 pinches coarse salt

A pepper mill filled with black peppercorns

1/4 cup/ 50 ml white wine vinegar

Rinse the fish in cold water and pat dry with paper towels. Into a large, heavy-bottomed skillet that will hold all of the fish comfortably, pour enough oil to just cover the bottom. Heat the oil over medium-high heat until hot and add the garlic cloves. Cook them until they are a very dark brown (much darker than one would normally want). Carefully remove the garlic with a slotted spoon and discard.

Add the fish to the hot oil with care (the oil will splatter), arranging the pieces so that there is room between them. The first contact of the fish with the oil should separate the skin from the fish. The skin will partially disintegrate during cooking, adding flavor and texture to the sauce. Note the time when you placed the fish in the pan.

Partially cover the pan and continue to cook over medium-high heat for 10 minutes. The important technique in this preparation is to never stir the ingredients. Use a flat spatula to lift or nudge the fish pieces so they do not stick to the pan. Every few minutes, remove the cover, lift the pan, and give it a shake to gently move the ingredients around.

After precisely 10 minutes add the coarse salt, set the cover aside, and continue cooking and shaking the pan every few minutes.

Five minutes after adding the salt, grind an abundant amount of black pepper from a pepper mill into the pan. Use much more than you would think to add. Keep cooking and shaking the pan every few minutes.

Five minutes after adding the pepper, add the vinegar, which is a flavor note. Cook for 2 minutes, then add a little boiling water from a ladle. Continue to add a little more (up to about 3 cups/ 675 ml), just until the fish pieces are partially covered. Keep cooking and shaking the pan every few minutes. When the water reduces somewhat, add more black pepper, then add a little more water. You will not likely use all the water in the pot. The goal is to have about 2 tablespoons/ 30 ml of pan liquid for each portion, and you should add just enough water (and more pepper) to achieve that aim.

After 30 minutes from the time the fish was added to the pan, check the sauce for flavor. There should be a pronounced pepper and fish flavor with echoes of vinegar and garlic. Push the pieces of fish toward the center of the pan, removing all the fish skin if possible. Also, where possible, lift the large bones out of the center of each piece of fish.

Cook for 5 more minutes, shaking the pan well and swirling the sauce about. Serve 2 pieces of fish per portion along with a generous amount of soft white polenta.

Wine: A well-structured Merlot or Pinot Nero

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More by Corby Kummer in Atlantic Unbound and The Atlantic Monthly.

Corby Kummer is a senior editor at The Atlantic Monthly and the author of The Joy of Coffee.

Copyright © 2001 by The Atlantic Monthly Group. All rights reserved.
Recipes from La Terra Fortunata by Fred Plotkin. Broadway Books: New York, NY, 2001. Hardcover, 412 pages. ISBN: 0-7679-0611-X. $35.00. Copyright © by Fred Plotkin.