Polenta Hiding Greens and Mozzarella

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Polenta: 15 minutes prep; 90 minutes unattended stove time
Grilled Greens: 15 minutes prep; about 10 minutes stove time

This is pure home food from the Lombardy region of northern Italy. Their polenta used to be on nearly every kitchen table, but I've never seen this dish beyond a few home kitchens. The surprise hidden on the plate is a treat.

What you see when it's set down in front of you is a dinner plate of steaming, creamy polenta. On top is melting butter and Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese. When you fork into it, you discover that the polenta hides hot, grilled, tart greens spiked with garlic and lemon. Under them, all creamy and cool, is melting mozzarella.

Cook to Cook: In reality, this dish is two recipes -- the polenta and grilled greens -- easily done ahead and warmed. The best polenta is made with fresh-ground cornmeal, so look for coarse ground meal where there's fast turnover. Obviously, imports won't fill the bill here. For the mozzarella, choose cheese that is in liquid. The fresher, and the better.

Effortless Polenta

Cooks in Italy's polenta country (Lombardy, Veneto and Tuscany) know polenta better than any other Italians. They insist cornmeal needs an hour or more of cooking to come to full tenderness and flavor, and to lose any trace of bitterness. Unless you like harsh, raw cornmeal mush, please ignore recipes recommending cooking polenta 15 to 20 minutes.

This double-boiler method eliminates long, tedious stirring. It is nearly effortless. Make a big batch of polenta to eat fresh and creamy in this dish, and then store the rest for later grilling, baking or sautéing.

The Double Boiler Method: The double-boiler technique consists of pouring boiling water into a bowl, whisking in polenta and salt, setting the bowl over a pot of simmering water, covering it, and cooking 1 1/2 to 2 hours. Stir the polenta occasionally and it is done.

Here is the basic formula and method for a polenta that stands in high mounds and cools to firm and sliceable. For firmer polenta, decrease the liquid by about one-third.

  • 2 quarts boiling water, or half water and half milk, or buttermilk, or broth
  • 2 cups coarse or fine ground cornmeal
  • 1 tablespoon salt
  • 1 to 1-1/2 sticks unsalted butter, melted
  • 2 cups freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, or aged Asiago or Montasio

1. Have handy an 8-quart stainless steel bowl and a whisk. Bring the 2 quarts of water to a boil. Meanwhile, fill a 6-quart pot half full with water. Bring to a lively simmer. Place the cornmeal in the bowl. Whisk the boiling, measured liquid into the bowl with the salt, whisking until any lumps disappear. Seal the bowl with foil and set it over the simmering water. Cook 1 1/2 hours.

2. During the first 20 minutes, stir polenta several times. Then stir only every 20 or 30 minutes, tasting for salt. Replenish simmering water as necessary. Taste polenta for bitterness and tenderness, cooking another 30 minutes if necessary. For serving the polenta soft, it can be held over hot water for up to 3 hours. Leftovers can be spread on an oiled shallow pan, or in a loaf pan, cooled, covered, and refrigerated up to 5 days.

Grilled Greens for 6 to 8

You want these lightly browned but still a little crisp.

  • 2 pounds escarole, curly endive, or kale, washed and dried
  • Good-tasting extra-virgin olive oil
  • 4 large garlic cloves, thin sliced
  • Salt and freshly ground black pepper
  • Juice of half a lemon

1. If using kale, trim away the stems and boil it for 5 minutes. Drain and pat dry once it is cooled.

2. If working with a grill, heat to medium high. Halve the heads of greens keeping them attached at their bases. Drizzle them very lightly with olive oil to barely coat, sprinkle with salt and pepper and grill them until somewhat wilted and starting to brown. Meanwhile, cook the garlic in a little oil in a skillet until it is softened but not browned. Toss the greens with the garlic and keep them warm. When ready to serve, squeeze the lemon juice over them.

3. If using a stove, heat the oven to 500ºF. Cover a large shallow pan (a half sheet pan is ideal) with foil. Drizzle the greens very lightly with oil and toss them with the garlic, salt and pepper. Roast them until they are starting to brown and are partially wilted. Add the lemon juice when you are serving them.

Mozzarella

  • 1-1/2 to 2 pounds mozzarella packed in liquid (the fresher the better), sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices

Assembling the Dish: Lay out 6 to 8 plates. Melt the butter for the polenta and make sure the polenta and greens are hot. At the center of each plate overlap several slices of the mozzarella so you have 2 to 3 ounces per serving. Mound greens atop the cheese, then spoon the polenta so all is covered. With the back of a spoon make a well in each mound of polenta, spoon in the hot butter, sprinkle generously with the Parmigiano and finish with salt and pepper. Serve hot.

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