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Funghi Arrosti con Pignoli (Mushrooms Roasted with Pine Nuts) and Polenta Gnocchi with Gorgonzola and Salsa di Peperoni Arrosti (Roasted Red Pepper Sauce)…among other things.

January 12, 2011

Last night we had friends over for dinner. This invited a fuller expression of the several courses that make up a typical Italian meal, and in the end, our kitchen was drowning in dishes, pots and pans that bore witness to our efforts. Dinner guests also gave us good reason to make something I, for one, have had a stand-offish relationship with: funghi…that is, mushrooms. Other people whose tastes I trust and admire like them, and I have often been met with looks of surprise and incredulity when I list them among the few things I don’t care for. I would like to like them, and on an intellectual level, I do. They are mysterious and terrifying, if not vital to the health of the earth. Did you know their root system is a microscopic web of branching fingers that is virtually immeasurable? Did you know they are more akin to animal than plant in their cellular composition? Did you know they are key players in the effort to break down dead matter—that without them (and other such creatures) our planet would have suffocated already? Yes, they are fantastic, noteworthy, intriguing members of the food chain. Even still, until last night—last night!—I had yet to be won over by their flavours. That’s right, I think I can say I like mushrooms now, or at least I can say I like funghi arrosti con pignoli.

You might also call them stuffed mushrooms, and they were our antipasto, along with a mixture of petite and colourful Sicilian olives I picked up from Bosa, a loaf of rustic bread I made with some of Joshua’s spent brewing grains (a bucket of IPA is bubbling away in our bathroom as I write), and dipping oil and vinegar. Again, we were relying on Anthony del Plato in Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant: Ethnic and Regional Recipes from the Cooks at the Legendary Restaurant for our inspiration, and this recipe for mushrooms is a keeper. I started with four little mushrooms and went back for more, but I am proud to say we let our guests have the final fungi. This recipe brightens the musky mushroom flavour with lemon and gives it a kick with red pepper flakes, and then of course, you have the buttery-soft crunch of the pine nuts. It was, I do not think I am exaggerating, delicious.

Following our antipasto, we had a primo piatto of Polenta Gnocchi with Gorgonzola (we are quickly growing fond of this blue-veined cheese), topped with Salsa di Peperoni Arrosti—Roasted Red Pepper Sauce. This course was Joshua’s domain. He told me emphatically, “I’m making the polenta,” and didn’t hesitate to remind me of this with a loving, “Get outta my kitchen!” when I threatened to interfere. I took a couple pictures. I suggested baking it a little longer to stiffen it up before punching out the rounds. I did the final arranging of the gnocchi in the pan. Other than that, it was his doing. Did you know you can make polenta at home—quite easily—from scratch? All it takes is cornmeal, water, salt, heat and some time.

Polenta, we learned from Waverly Root in The Food of Italy, is the heritage of the Etruscans, one of the three people groups to whom Italy owes its culinary and cultural heritage, and it is consumed all over the north of the country. It was and is eaten as porridge, or in a stiffer, dumpling-like form as we have here in polenta “gnocchi.” Once a friend of mine even used it as a dense, cake-like base for a dessert, and it was delicious topped with a (was it pear?) fruit sauce and honey-sweetened yogurt. Baked up with melting gorgonzola until the edges of each round were a bit crisp and browned, then topped with the roasted red pepper sauce and (of course), a fresh grating of Parmesan, it is at once a tasty variation from pasta, rice or potatoes and a wonderful taste of Italian history. “It does not sound like particularly inspiring food,” writes Root, “but on it the Roman Legions conquered the world” (The Food of Italy, 4).

We finished our meal with what, according to del Plato, is a more essential ending to any given meal than fancy pastries (which are reserved for holidays and special occasions): fruit. We chose to pop open our last jar of home-canned pears given to us by a friend. I warmed them in their juice on the stove top, added a dash of cinnamon and a splash of both vanilla and Amaretto and served them alongside toasted walnuts and fresh grapes. And of course, there was coffee. Not espresso yet—this will come in time—but a press of one of our guest’s own home-roasted beans. A fitting ending, we thought, to a night of cucina casalinga.

The recipes (from Sundays at Moosewood Restaurant)…

Funghi Arrosti con Pignoli
(Serves 6 as a side dish)…or, in our case, 4 as an antipasto

18 large mushrooms (we used Crimini)
1/3 cup olive oil
juice of 1/2 lemon (we used the juice of a whole lemon–it depends how juicy your fruit is, I suppose)
2 large garlic cloves, minced
1/3 cup pine nuts
1/3 cup bread crumbs
1/2 tsp red pepper flakes
freshly ground pepper and salt to taste

Wipe the mushrooms clean if necessary and gently pull the stems from the caps and set them aside. Coat a 10-inch pie plate or some other shallow bake-and-serve dish with some of the olive oil. Dip each mushroom cap in the lemon juice and place them stem side up, snugly fit together in the dish.

Dice the mushroom stems. Saute them in the rest of the olive oil along with the garlic, until the garlic turns golden. Stir in the pine nuts and the bread crumbs. Add the red pepper flakes, plenty of black pepper and salt to taste. Remove from heat.

Spoon sauteed mixture into the mushroom caps, sprinkling any extra on top. Bake uncovered at 400F for 15-20 minutes. Serve hot.

Polenta Gnocchi with Gorgonzola
(Serves 6)

6 cups water
2 cups cornmeal (1 cup each of finely and coarsely ground is ideal)
2 tsp salt
2 TBS melted butter
1/2 pound Gorgonzola cheese

In a large saucepan or heavy-bottomed soup pot, slowly pour water into the cornmeal, stirring constantly, until you have a lump-free paste. Stir in the rest of the water and the salt. Cook on medium-low heat for 20-30 minutes (Joshua says, cook on medium-high heat for probably a bit longer than this, and, “Bring a book”), stirring very frequently, until thick and smooth. Be especially vigilant during the last 10 minutes to prevent scorching. When the polenta is done, a spoon will stand up in the middle of the pan and the whole mass will cling together and pull away from the side of the pan.

Remove the polenta from the heat and slop it onto a countertop (or large baking sheet or cutting board) that has been wet down with cold water to prevent sticking. Smooth out the polenta with a large spoon or spatula or your hands (wet and cooled with cold water) to about 1/2″ thickness. Let is cool for at least a half and hour. It can be left half a day, covered with a cloth.

Brush the bottom and sides of a baking dish with some of the melted butter. Brush the rest of the butter on the top of the polenta. Cut the polenta into small rounds (1 1/2 to 2″) with a small glass or biscuit cutter.

Remove all the little four-sided pieces of polenta from between the cut rounds and place them in the baking dish. Then, on top of these, make an overlapping row of rounds leaning against the side of the dish. Lean the next overlapping row of rounds on the first row (like roof tiles at a 45-degree angle, or fallen dominoes), and so on until the dish is filled. Crumble the Gorgonzola over the top. Bake right away, or cover and refrigerate until baking time.

Bake at 450F for about 20 minutes or until the cheese melts and the gnocchi are crusty. Serve at once.

Salsa di Peperoni Arrosti (Roasted Red Pepper Sauce)
(Serves 6)

6 huge or 9 medium red bell peppers
1 onion, chopped
3 TBS olive oil
3 cloves garlic, finely diced or pressed
3 fresh tomatoes or 6 canned whole Italian plum tomatoes with enough juice to make 1 1/2 cups, finely chopped
2 TBS chopped fresh basil (1 tsp dried)
freshly ground pepper, to taste
1/4 cup chopped fresh parsley

Place peppers directly on oven racks in a preheated 500F oven for 20-30 minutes, turning two or three times to get all sides evenly charred. Cover the bottom of the oven with aluminum foil to catch any drips in case a pepper splits open. Peppers should be roasted until their skins are charred (black and blistered). When the peppers are all charred, put them immediately in a covered bowl. Allowing the peppers to cool down in their own steam makes them easy to peel.

When the peppers are cool enough to handle comfortably, peel off the skins. They should flake off in large pieces. Don’t worry about removing every little fleck of blackened skin, and do not wash the peppers or you will lose much of the special roasted flavor. Remove the stems, thick inner membranes, and seeds. Slice into thin strips. Cut the long strips in half lengthwise. You should have at least two cups. Set aside.

In a large skillet, saute the onion in the olive oil for a few minutes. Add the garlic. When the onions are translucent, add the tomatoes, basil and black pepper. Stir in the red pepper strips and cook a few minutes. Puree about 1/3 of the sauce in a blender or food processor and then return it to the pan. Add the parsley. Serve hot.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Geordan permalink
    January 18, 2011 1:29 pm

    Sarah you’re a really good writer. You’re both very good cooks. You’re really wonderful people.


  1. Week Three: An evening of antipasti….Or, “Happy Birthday to Me” « Cucina Casalinga

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