I just came back from Italy (where I ate magnificent food all day long) with great arm-length wedges of cheese, guanciale for carbonara, and enough olive oil to bathe in. Homesick for a place I'm not from, I wanted to put all the ingredients to use right away before the lingering memory of all that good food began to fade. So I reproduced two of the simplest dishes I'd eaten and made a very satisfying dinner of it: polenta with olive oil and Parmigiano-Reggiano, and the classic spinach alla Romana with pine nuts, garlic, and raisins.
Great polenta is an art, but pretty good polenta is darn easy with quality cornmeal. The spinach dish is also a no-brainer, as long as a few tricks are used: The raisins must be soaked to increase their plumpness, the garlic must be browned gently for at least 5 minutes to bring out its nutty flavor, and the pine nuts should be cooked until golden, but not burned. The resulting dish is hearty, punctuated with bites of sweetness and creamy pine nut, and imbued with savory garlic. With the polenta, it's a terrific dinner.
About the author: Blake Royer lives in Brooklyn and spends most of his free time cooking and writing about it here at Serious Eats and on The Paupered Chef. From 9 to 5 weekdays, he works as an assistant book editor in Manhattan.
- For the polenta
- 1 cup good-quality cornmeal
- 4 1/2 cups water
- 3/4 teaspoon salt
- Olive oil to taste
- Parmigiano-Reggianno to taste
- For the spinach
- 3 tablespoons olive oil
- 2 cloves garlic, thinly sliced
- 1/2 cup raisins (or even better, currants)
- 1/2 cup pine nuts
- 2 pounds fresh spinach, or 1 pound frozen
Bring the water and salt to a boil for the polenta in a medium pot, then add the cornmeal very slowly in a trickle while whisking constantly. Once all the cornmeal is added, continue stirring for another few minutes, switching to a wooden spoon once the mixture thickens. Cover and turn the heat to very low. Stir for a full minute every ten until the polenta is creamy, about 30-35 minutes.
Put the raisins in a small bowl and cover with boiling water; allow to soak for 15 minutes.
If using fresh spinach, rinse it and add to a skillet, cooking until wilted and shrunken. Transfer to a bowl and wipe the skillet dry.
In the skillet, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat and saute the garlic until golden, about 5 minutes. Add the pine nuts and cook until also golden, then add the raisins (squeezed as dry as possible) and the cooked spinach. Increase the heat to medium and season to taste with salt and lots of pepper. Add olive oil as desired to avoid dryness.
Turn out the polenta onto plates and puddle a little olive oil in the middle. Top with Parmigiano and black pepper. Serve the spinach on the side.