Polenta and rice

Polenta and rice

By
Stefano de Pieri
Contains
17 recipes
Published by
Hardie Grant Books
ISBN
9781740661713
Photographer
Earl Carter

Polenta is ground maize. Maize came from the Americas and therefore, like potato, tomato, chilli and eggplant, is regarded in old Europe as a post-Colombian ingredient. Imagine life in Europe before Christopher Columbus brought back the spud and the ubiquitous tomato! Life without gnocchi and spaghetti al pomodoro is simply not imaginable.

Polenta has a multitude of uses, both savoury and sweet. As I remember it, polenta was always white, that is, made from white maize. It is available here in Australia in specialist food stores and is worth pursuing. White polenta is delicate, creamy and finely textured.

White polenta suits fish-based recipes, such as cuttlefish or calamari cooked in their own ink or a tomato-based fish stew – see some of the following recipes – or white meats like rabbit and olive stews.

Yellow polenta is coarser, gutsier and better suited to strong meat-based stews. Braised lamb and peas is an ideal polenta dish, as is braised lamb neck or osso buco. Indeed, anything with strong flavour and loads of sauce.

Both white and yellow polenta are a vegetarian delight, with braised veggies or melted cheese such as gorgonzola.

I grew up with polenta, and am one of a generation born on the land of polenta that remembers every single part of the horrendous cycle of maize farming. The very thought of a sharp blade of maize leaf sliding along your neck, as one is working through a vast field of maize, evokes a sense of irritation and pain to this day.

The thing to ponder is that the background of polenta is partially connected to the development of Australia: hordes of people with nothing to eat but polenta decided to look for a better future in Australia. Many of them went into the building trades and agriculture from Victoria to Queensland, from NSW to WA, and now some of the most successful Australian building firms are run by the children of people who had nothing much to eat other than polenta. Other children of that generation became lawyers, business people and high-ranking officers of the Australian government.

So this chapter is for them, and to remind them, if ever they read this book, of where they came from.

Rice and rice soups

If polenta represents the rustic, the hearty and the filling, risotto, also originating in the north of Italy, represents sophistication and special occasions. Rice is almost universal, especially in combination with vegetables. When it comes to rice, the main point of difference between Italian cooking and other cuisine is risotto, for there is no other gastronomy where rice is elevated to royal status rather than being an accompaniment. In my restaurant I have witnessed many Asian diners – otherwise very responsive to pasta – leave risotto on the plate with a mixture of curiosity and less than concealed contempt. I figure that the type of rice used for risotto mustn’t please, nor the manner in which it is cooked.

For the Italians, however, risotto is very desirable – creamy, velvety, rich or light – and it is a test of the host’s ability in the kitchen. Furthermore, there are different risotto styles, depending on personal taste, region, ingredient and so on. Clearly, a risotto next to a braised meat like osso buco cannot be too soupy. Conversely, an asparagus risotto should be, at least for me, a little runny – and that is a matter of personal taste, although you are likely to find a lot of Venetians agreeing with me.

The Venetian playwright Carlo Goldoni, whose work so cleverly captures the charming and decadent mood of Venice just before she was raped by the French invaders, made one of his characters criticise the Florentines because they allow their risotto to overcook and to double in volume. What he was saying, even then, is that risotto cannot be soft. Risotto rice is all about texture, a quality that makes it completely different from Asian or Indian rice.

Again, people in my restaurant have complained about runny risotto, so much so that I now serve it less frequently. I am despondent to see risotto become another bastardised Italian dish. Asserting freedom of approach to culinary matters is one thing; bad taste and insensitivity is another. This seemingly banal dish is transformed into something sublime only when it is cooked with respect and with exceptional quality ingredients. Otherwise, forget it.

So, at the risk of repeating myself, a good risotto requires an exceptional chicken stock, a golden one full of flavour. Over the years I have been guest chef at umpteen restaurants, which invariably use the same ‘alla francese’ stocks to make risotto. These over-reduced concoctions certainly have a place in the kitchen, but not near risotto. To my horror, I have also been in restaurant kitchens where they use chicken cubes and chicken booster to make risotto – goodness knows why, when a good stock is so simple to make.

So, the secret to good risotto is a good stock, simple ingredients, and cooking it just right. Try it with the following recipes.

Featured Recipes in this Chapter

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