Friday, October 13, 2006


Polenta e fagioli al veneto

In my quest to find dishes in which meat is not the main star, I have decided to experiment with beans. This is my first. Do not fear one and all - I am going neither vegetarian nor vegan, but I recognize that my angelheart Eric and I eat a lot of meat, and I sometimes just want a break from it - this is especially difficult because I barely eat any seafood, and Eric refuses to have a main dish that is predominantly of vegetables. Beans seem to be a good way to get the fiber, iron, and substance one extracts and counts upon when eating meat - particularly red meat.

Dried beans plump up by slowly absorbing liquid, and this allows them to release complex sugars that are difficult to digest (and which cause flatulence!). For some beans, particularly kidney beans, soaking is necessary to draw out a particular lectin that is toxic. So, never skimp on soaking your dried beans!

The recipe with which to embark on my maiden voyage into the world of pulses was chosen for the ostensible fact that each step is relatively easy. It comes by way of Judith Barrett's Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy. Barrett is an American cookery book writer who is largely influenced by the cooking of Italy - she also co-authored Risotto. This particular recipe apparently comes from the Veneto, a region in north-eastern Italy, the capital of which is Venice.

I replaced sage with tarragon. Of course this changed the end result: instead of piques of mind-clearing sharpness, I got a deep and complex sweetness. This is truly what I wanted after a hectic day. I also replaced pancetta with "Canadian Bacon", which is really just middle bacon instead of back bacon (higher in fat). I think the only thing really missing was some parmesan or other variety of nutty cheese. If you have never had polenta before, my experience of it cooked in this fashion is that it tastes like mushy couscous...and I love it :-)

The recipe is plenty for four, and you can adjust accordingly, as I did, for two, although the beans do refrigerate well and can be warmed through after another day that leaves too little time to cook.

Polenta e fagioli al veneto
(from Judith Barrett's Fagioli: The Bean Cuisine of Italy)

1 1/2 cups borlotti, fagioli di lamon, pinto, or cranberry beans
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium onions, finely chopped
2 cloves garlic, peeled and finely chopped
2 cups chopped tomatoes (approximately seven good-sized tomatoes)
1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
2 tablespoons tomato paste
1 cup vegetable or chicken broth
10 leaves basil, finely chopped
4 leaves fresh sage (or 10 leaves tarragon), finely chopped
salt and black pepper
2 cups yellow polenta
6 oz pancetta (or thick cut of bacon), cut into 1/4" (1 cm) dice

1) Soak the beans in cold water for 8 hours or longer. Drain and discard the water. Rinse beans under cold water and drain again.
2) Combine the beans with 6 cups of cold water in a saucepan over medium-high heat. When the water begins to boil, lower the heat and simmer, uncovered, for about on1 hour (or when the beans are tender). When beans are tender, turn off the heat and set aside.
3) Heat olive oil in a casserole or Dutch oven over medium heat, then add onion and garlic.
4) When onion is soft (approximately 3 minutes), stir in the chopped tomatoes and vinegar.
5) Dissolve the tomato paste in the broth, then add broth to the onion and tomato party in the casserole along with the finely chopped herbs.
6) Season with salt and pepper to taste, then let simmer until the sauce is thick (about 15 to 20 minutes).
7) Drain the beans and add to the tomato sauce. Combine well. Cook for 15 minutes longer.
8) Boil 9 cups of water in a 6-quart pot, then add yellow polenta and tablespoon salt. Whisk together to ensure clumps do not form. When the polenta comes to a boil, turn down to a simmer and stir with a wooden spoon frequently. The polenta is done when it starts pulling away from the sides of the pot and is nice and thick. In total, this should take 20-25 minutes.
9) During the last 10 minutes of the polenta coming together, chuck the cubed pancetta into a small saucepan and heat until crispy. I actually just prefer my bacon lightly browned; if you want yours really crispy, you may have to start heating it a few more minutes earlier. Drain excess fat by putting the pancetta on a paper towel after desired crispiness is achieved.
10) To serve: Spoon the polenta onto your dish first, ladle the beans over the top of the polenta, and then sprinkle the pancetta on top of the beans.

I'd like to have some of this right now! Looks so good. It's getting chilly up here so this is the perfect recipe, maybe for this weekend.
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