Comfort in a Bowl

Polenta with Mushrooms, Cavalo Nero and Gorganzola

I am sure everyone is wondering where I have been for the last two months. I wish I could give you some glamorous answer, but the truth is that life got in my way: work deadlines and a trip to London; and I had a cold which then turned into the flu over the holidays. Now I am back and raring to go.

Winter has finally reared its head here in Israel and all I could think of was making comfort in a bowl. First, I made us a big pot of hearty chicken soup which nurtured Mr BT and me through the cold-flu episode. It healed us, warmed us and comforted us as it always does. Good old chicken soup.

When I finally had the energy to cook again, I decided to make the second best comfort in a bowl recipe, polenta. Soft polenta, stirred clockwise with a wooden paddle over a low flame and served with sautéed White Button mushrooms, King Oyster mushrooms, homegrown Cavolo Nero from my garden and creamy Gorgonzola cheese. Life can’t get much better than that.

I am looking forward to an interesting 2012, filled with new recipes, new adventures and some lovely surprises.

I wish everyone a very happy, healthy and prosperous 2012.

Polenta with Mushrooms, Leeks, Cavolo Nero and Gorgonzola

Serving Size: 6 as main course

For the polenta:

4 cups cold water

1 teaspoon salt

1 cup polenta (not instant)

For the vegetables

2 tablespoons olive oil

1 large leek, pale and green parts only, rinsed and thinly sliced

3 cloves garlic, finely chopped

1 small bunch of Cavolo Nero, kale or Swiss Chard, stems removed and roughly chopped

1 package White Button or Cremini mushrooms, wiped clean and sliced

2 large King Oyster mushrooms, cut in half and then cut lengthwise

1/4 dry white wine

2 teaspoons finely chopped thyme

100g (3.5 oz) Gorgonzola Dolce

Place the water and salt in a large saucepan over a low flame. Immediately add the polenta in a steady stream while stirring constantly in a clockwise motion to avoid lumps. Stir ever few minutes in a clockwise motion until all the liquid is absorbed and the polenta is thick, approximately 30-40 minutes. The polenta should be soft and creamy, not grainy.

Meanwhile, in a large frying pan, heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over medium heat and add the leeks, garlic and Cavolo Nero. Saute until the leeks are slightly soft and barely golden, about 5 minutes. Place in a bowl and set aside. Add an additional tablespoon of olive oil to the pan and add the mushrooms, cooking until they are softened, about 10 minutes.

Add the leek mixture and the white wine to the pan. When the wine is cooked down slightly, add the chopped thyme, and salt and pepper to taste.

When the polenta has finished cooking, crumble in half of the Gorgonzola and mix through. Place the polenta on a large platter and form a well in the center. Place the mushroom mixture in the well and crumble the rest of the Gorgonzola on top.

Hankering for Tuscany

I can’t believe that it has been over a year since our trip to Verona, Tuscany, and Umbria. We are constantly talking about that trip and are longing to go back, so much so, that we hope one day we can buy a vacation home in Italy.

I have been meaning to finish blogging about our trip to Italy, but other events have distracted me. So, I am going to try and finally finish writing about our trip in the next few weeks.

Mr. BT and I did not spend a lot of time in Tuscany this trip because we concentrated most of the trip on Umbria. However, since neither one of us had been to Siena, we decided to make a detour on our way to Umbria. Siena was founded by the Etruscans and later refounded as a Roman colony. It grew to be one of the major cities of Europe and used to be as big as Paris was. It is really hard to believe that it was once that large and prosperous. Prosperity and innovation came to an abrupt halt with the Black Death, which reached Siena in 1348. The population went from 100,000 to 30,000 and never recovered. Today, it has a population of approximately 60,000.

The center of Siena is its great square, Piazza del Campo. Over four hundred years ago, Michel de Montaigne described it as the most beautiful square in the world. I am not sure it is the most beautiful, but it is surely something to be seen. It is massive, you can see that this was the center of life for the Sienese. It was the  location of the city’s marketplace for produce and livestock, the scene of executions, bullfights, communal boxing matches, and the Palio. The Palio is a traditional medieval bareback horse race that is still held today, with all of its pomp and circumstance, one day in July and August.

The Duomo di Siena in its current size was built around 1215. Had it been completed, it would have been the largest cathedral in Italy outside Rome. Unfortunately, the expansion of the Duomo was halted due to the Black Death and lack of funds. But, it is still an awesome structure. It is a combination of Romanesque and Gothic architecture made of black and white marble. The striped, almost zebra-like design is modelled after buildings in Pisa and Lucca. Walking in the cathedral with all of the inlaid marble floors and striped walls puts you in a trance.  Donatello, young Michaelangelo, Nicola Pisano and his son Giovanni, Arnolfo di Cambio and Pinturicchio all contributed to the mass of beautiful art in the cathedral.

It is really hard to take it all in in one visit. We were under pressure to get to Umbria before dark, so we didn’t get to spend as much time as we would have like. This church is a definite must-see.

You cannot leave Siena without trying some of their specialties, such as pici. This pasta, which looks like spaghetti but is about twice as thick, is usually served with a wild boar ragu, but we made it with pesto in our hideaway on a mountain in Umbria.

Some of their other specialties are pappa col pomodoro (bread and tomato soup), tortino di carciofi (artichoke omelette), and salsicce seche (dried sausages). They are also famous for delicious sweets, such as panforte and ricciarelli. The best place to try these are at Pasticceria Nannini , which has been selling its delicious panforte, ricciarelli, and other Sienese delights since 1909.

Ricciarelli (pictured above, upper left corner) are classic orange-laced Sienese almond paste cookies that were once a Christmas delight, but are now enjoyed year-round. We bought a couple of these and wished we had bought some more. But our waists thanked us half-heartedly for not doing so.

Panforte contains dried fruits, spices (such as black pepper) and nuts. Some say that an authentic panforte should contain 17 ingredients to coincide with the number of neighborhoods (contrade) within the city walls.  Documents from 1205 show that panforte was paid to the monks and nuns of a local monastery as a tax or tithe which was due on the seventh of February that year. Literally, panforte means “strong bread” which refers to the spicy flavour. The original name of Panforte was “panpepato” (pepper bread), due to the strong pepper used in the cake. There are references to the Crusaders carrying panforte with them on their quests. It is thought that the original panforte was made by nuns.

We tried a slice of the Panforte Margherita, which is made of sugar, almonds, hazelnuts, flour, orange zest, honey, cinnamon, nutmeg, and vanilla. It was absolutely delicious.

All-in-all our short trip to Siena was well worth it. More to come….

The supermarket had a very good deal on an inexpensive cut of meat they called “Hamin”, which means a cut of meat for a slow-roasting Moroccan version of cholent. I really dislike cholent, but I figured I could find some other interesting slow-roasting recipe for this good deal. I remembered a wonderful beef and polenta dish that I had years ago in Firenze and I knew this was the perfect recipe for my cheap cut of meat.

Brasato al Chianti is a Tuscan slow-cooked beef dish that is typically made with Chianti wine, but I used a nice Israeli red table wine instead because Chianti does not cost 4 Euros here. For the Piedmont version of this dish, substitute a Barolo wine. A sangiovese or any light-bodied red wine can also be substituted.

The result was excellent: you wouldn’t have guessed that this was about the cheapest cut of beef they had in the supermarket, because it came out tender and full of flavour.

Brasato al Chianti

Serving Size: 4-6

(Italian beef braised in red wine)

1/4 cup olive oil

1kg (2 pounds) beef rump roast

2 onions, chopped

2 carrots, peeled and chopped

1 cup mushrooms, sliced

4 cloves garlic, crushed

1/2 bottle Chianti wine

1 cup stock or water

2 sprigs fresh thyme

1 sprig fresh rosemary

1 spring fresh oregano

2 tablespoons chopped fresh parsley

2 bay leaves

6 whole cloves

1 cinnamon stick

Salt and pepper to taste

Mix all the ingredients together in a bowl and refrigerate for 8-24 hours.

Heat the oil in a large dutch oven over medium-high flame. Remove the meat from the marinade, drying it off before searing. Brown the meat on all sides. Add marinade and vegetables to the pot. Bring to a boil, and then reduce heat to low, cover and bake at 150C (300F) for 4 hours. Add water as necessary to maintain liquid so it covers about half of the beef. Remove the meat to a cutting board, cover loosely with foil and set aside to rest for 10-15 minutes.

While the meat is resting, strain the pot liquid through a colander. Discard the sprigs of herbs and puree the vegetables in a food mill, blender or food processor. Stir the pureed vegetables back into the strained liquid and adjust the seasonings. Slice the beef and place it decoratively on a warm platter.

If you like a lighter sauce like I do, you can serve the sauce and vegetables as is or remove the vegetables and reduce the liquid by half, adding the vegetables a couple of minutes before serving.

Serve over polenta or gnocchi, or make polenta cakes, like I did, by make polenta according to the directions on the package. Let the polenta cool, form patties, and fry them in a little olive oil.



The medieval walled town of Bergamo is a charming town with piazzas, palazzi and frescoed churches that owes much of its beauty to 370 years of Venetian rule.

We decided to stop here on the way to our first stop of our trip, Verona. I had been to Bergamo about 14 years ago when I was living in Lugano and I remembered it as a charming town. It was still as charming as I remembered and it was a perfect stop on the way to Verona.

Bergamo is made up of Bergamo Basso (Lower Bergamo) and Bergamo Alta (Upper Bergamo). Bergamo Alta is high above the lower town and can either be reached by taking the funicular or driving up and parking in one of the public parking lots that are hidden in the narrow cobble-stoned streets of the old town.

The main sites in Bergamo Alta are:

  • Piazza Vecchia (old square)

  • Palazzo della Ragione. It was the seat of the administration of the city in the communal age. It is now the site of exhibitions. Erected in the 12th century, it was rebuilt in the late 16th century by Pietro Isabello. The façade has the lion of St. Mark over a mullioned window, testifying to the long period of Venetian dominance. The atrium has a well-preserved 18th century sundial.

  • Basilica di Santa Maria Maggiore (Saint Mary Major). It was built from 1137 on the site of a previous religious edifice of the 7th century. Construction lasted until the 15th century. Of this first building remains the external Romanesque structure and the Greek cross plan, while the interior was widely modified in the 16th and 17th centuries. Noteworthy are the great Crucifix and the tomb of Gaetano Donizetti. The dome has frescoes by Giovanbattista Tiepolo.

  • Cappella Colleoni (Colleoni chapel), annexed to Santa Maria Maggiore, a masterwork of Renaissance architecture and decorative art.
  • The Rocca (Castle). It was begun in 1331 on hill of the Sant’Eufemia by William of Castelbarco, vicar of John of Bohemia, and later completed by Azzone Visconti. A wider citadel was also added, but it is now partly lost. The Venetians built a large tower in the Rocca, as well as a line of walls (Mura Veneziane) 6,200 metres long.

  • Palazzo della Ragione and the nearby Biblioteca Angelo Mai (Palazzo Nuovo), designed by Vincenzo Scamozzi.

One of Bergamo’s famous son’s is the famous opera composer Gaetano Donizetti. He was most famous for writing the opera Lucia di Lammermoor.

Bergamo is also famous for its polenta and cheeses. Unfortunately, we did not have time to try either of these, but I have fond memories of eating polenta with taleggio cheese and a wild mushroom ragu. The soft, creamy polenta mixed with taleggio cheese and sage and served with a delicious wild mushroom ragu. It was the perfect meal for a cold day. Of course the cold didn’t stop me from having gelato. I had some at the same gelateria with my husband and the pistachio gelato was a good as I remembered it.

Soft Polenta with a Wild Mushroom Ragu

Serving Size: 4 to 6 as first course

For the polenta:

1 cup polenta

4 cups water

1 teaspoon fine sea salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon unsalted butter

3 tablespoons finely grated parmesan Reggiano

For the ragu:

1 cup heavy cream

1/2 teaspoon fresh, minced (¼ teaspoon dried) thyme

1/8 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg

1/4 cup freshly grated parmesan

1 teaspoon virgin olive oil

1 cup small cremini mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed, and quartered

1/2 cup assorted wild mushrooms, cleaned and, if large, sliced

2 medium shallots, minced (2 tablespoons)

1 small clove garlic, minced (1 teaspoon)

1/2 teaspoon fine sea salt

1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

1 tablespoon freshly chopped parsley

Place the polenta and water in a heavy-bottomed 2 ½ quart saucepan (preferably one with fluted sides) and stir to combine. Set the pan over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon, until the grains are soft and hold their shape on a spoon, about an hour. Whisk in the salt, pepper, butter, and parmesan. Cover and keep warm. (The polenta may be transferred to a bowl, covered and set over barely simmering water. If necessary, thin the polenta with hot water before serving.)

While the polenta is cooking, pour the cream into a second heavy-bottomed saucepan and simmer over low heat until it is thick and reduced by half, about 15 minutes. Whisk in the thyme, nutmeg, and parmesan. Remove from the heat and set aside.

Heat a large skillet over high heat, 2 minutes. Add the olive oil and swirl to coat. Add the cremini mushrooms. Sear and stir intermittently until the mushrooms release their juices and begin to brown, about 3 minutes. Stir in the wild mushrooms, shallots and garlic and continue to sautée over high heat until the mushrooms are tender, 2 minutes. Stir in the salt and pepper. Add the reserved cream and parsley and stir to coat. Taste for seasoning.

To serve: Scoop the polenta onto warm appetizer plates, leaving an indentation on the top. Spoon the mushroom ragout over. Serve immediately.

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