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Polenta cakes and beans (Polenta e fagioli), OR, “Eating our way through Lent and a few theological abstractions for the kitchen”

April 10, 2011

Thursday night is beans-and-rice night in our house.  We vary the theme slightly: black beans, pinto beans, red beans; sometimes it’s beans-and-quinoa, sometimes it’s beans-and-cornbread.  This week it was canellini beans-and-polenta.  I’ve mentioned before that we try to bring a lot together in our little kitchen…seasonal, local ingredients, organic as much as we can manage, mainly vegetarian.  This is for our health and the health of the earth as much as it is an effort to remind ourselves that the vast majority of the world live and eat happily on much, much less than we do each day.  Not every day is a feast-day, nor should it be.  There’s a whole lot of ordinariness in the year, and much fasting to be observed, too.  With these thoughts in mind, we are making fledgling attempts at observing the liturgical year in the kitchen and at the table.  The year as the Church sees it, starting with Advent and ending with Christ-the-Kind Sunday, is (here comes a lofty thought) the sacrament of the redemption of time.

What?  Well, I can’t exactly elaborate on the meaning of “the redemption of time.”  I could try and I would be faking it.  But I think it has something to do with the mystery that past, present and future–all those “wasted” hours, all those “missed opportunities,” all those “what nexts?” are caught up with the whole of creation in God’s work to “make all things new.”  In a word, it is hope.  Our days are not ultimately measured by the clock; our weeks not ultimately measured by 9 to 5’s and a fleeting respite on the weekend; our months are not ultimately measured by the flip of a calendar page and a nice little ditty about thirty days have September, April, June and November.  No.  Time is measured, as all things, by Christ.  What exactly that means and how it looks is precisely the journey we are on.  We’re somewhere near the beginning of the trail still, I think.

So much for being a food blog.  Watch out theologians, here comes a girl with a wooden spoon!

Back in the kitchen, our attempt to grapple with this great hope is, here at the beginning of April, taking us down the sad, bright path of Lent–those forty days of fasting, as we feebly try to join Christ in His journey to the cross. It is a time of giving up, a time of increased simplicity, a solemn time of preparation for death–and resurrection.  We have been trying to use only candlelight at our dinner table as a way of watching the light outside our windows increase in strength as the springtime hours lengthen.  Indeed, the light is coming.  Darkness is ebbing.  And we are trying to remember that but for this light we are dust and ash: frail, fleeting, blown in the wind.

Stone-ground cornmeal in the hand is like sand in an hourglass.

Polenta cakes on the griddle is like the redemption of time.

Well…maybe not.  It is however, to be sure, like nothing but itself.  Which very well may be an aspect of the redemption of time–I can’t say. 

This bean recipe is originally a beans-and-pasta recipe.  A redemption dish, so to speak: scraps left at the bottom of various used packages of pasta are combined with crushed, spoon-sized pieces of spaghetti and added to the brothy beans to make a thick, soupy meal.  Apparently the best version of this fairly ubiquitous dish is to be found in Naples.  I cooked the beans down longer to make it thicker on its own, and served it with polenta cakes, which we broke into the soup by the spoonful.

For dessert (very unLentish of us, I know), I put a dollop of vanilla yogurt and a spoonful of homemade marmalade over leftover polenta cakes which make a very tasty platform for a not-to-sweet dessert.

The recipes:

Basic Polenta (from An Invitation to Italian Cooking by Antonio Carluccio)

1.7 litres (3 pints) salted water

300 grams (10 1/2 oz.) polenta flour (I used stone ground cornmeal which is a mixture of both coarse and fine meal)

55 grams (2 oz) butter

Olive oil for the griddle

Bring the salted water to a boil.  Very carefully add the polenta, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon so that no lumps appear (use a wisk if need be to break up the lumps).  You must continue to stir the polenta until you see that it starts to come away from the sides of the pot.  This will take 30-40 minutes.  Add the butter and stir in.  Turn out on a lightly oiled board and spread to desired thickness and let firm up (about 20 minutes, depending on thickness).  Cut desired shapes and grill on a hot, olive-oiled griddle, turning once, until each side is lightly browned and crisp.

Beans (adapted from”Pasta with Beans”from An Invitation to Italian Cooking by Antonio Carluccio)

3 – 425 gram (14oz.) cans canellini beans (white kidney beans), or (better) borlotti beans

Olive oil to coat the bottom of your pot

2 celery stalks, finely chopped

115 grams (4 oz) chopped prosciutto trimmings (I used a little bit of leftover pork roast we had in the fridge)

2 medium potatoes, cubed

1 tsp. crushed red chili pepper

2 garlic cloves, minced

1 – 425 gram (15 oz) can peeled plum tomatoes, chopped in the can, plus the juice/liquid from the can

1 litre (1 3/4 pints) chicken, beef, or vegetable stock or water (I used chicken)

salt and pepper to taste

freshly grated Parmesan or Grana Padano to garnish

I usually start with dry beans, but time was short and we didn’t have an white beans (or borlotti beans) on hand.  Thus, the canned beans.  If you know how to cook with dry beans you know how to adjust this recipe accordingly.

Fry celery and prosciutto in olive oil over medium heat.  After a few minutes, add the red pepper flakes and the potatoes, stirring to prevent the prosciutto from browning.  After about 10 minutes, add the garlic.  Cook for a few minutes and add the tomatoes.  Cook 10 minutes more, then add two-thirds of the beans and mash the remaining third and set aside to be added later to thicken the soup.  Add the stock/water and bring to a boil.  (If you want to try the pasta version, add 115 grams/4 oz. of mixed pasta here and leave out the polenta altogether). Cook 8-10 minutes, add the mashed beans and salt and pepper to taste.  Serve over or with polenta cakes and garnish with freshly grated Parmesan or Grana Padano cheese.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. April 22, 2011 8:51 pm

    Yes. Yes yes yes. Tov.

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