Winter Eats with Polenta and Cavolo Nero-July 2010

Winter Eating-With Polenta and Cavolo Nero  
July 2010

I am definitely one for hibernation over winter. I am usually very content being in anyway but as soon as it hits around 4C outside I'm happy to be in with the cat but the heater.
Winter is easily the best time for cooking. Everyone goes on about summer cooking but hot weather isn't conducive to being inside and slaving away over something at the stove for hours. Winter cooking is all about slow cooking and also about having the time to wait for slow cut meats to do their own thing in the oven.

I have been singing the praises of beef shin at the moment-a great cheap cut that has all the flavour of bone in it also and comes alive after at least two hours of cooking.
I cook it simply with white wine, capers, lemon zest, salt and pepper and after it has melted down, I shred it and have it on homemade pasta with the best winter veg, cavolo nero. Luxurious!!
Cavolo can be hard to find but check out your local health food store. I always buy it from there as an organically grown number and it is wonderfully good and hearty for you. A member of the kale family, this type of greens have so much goodness naturally-iron, vitamin K and C, calcium and the much discussed sulforaphane which is said to have anti-cancer properties that are best bought out when the vegetable in question is chopped or minced. The only difference between cabbage and kale is that no head forms as it does with a cabbage so the leaves are looser but a great deal tougher in texture.
Said to have been the most common green in Europe through the Middle Ages, kale was a hearty favourite of the Romans and nowadays the Italians love it as much as I do. It is oddly enough closely related to Chinese Kai-Larn which has a similarly woody texture but more stalky and is far more bitter in taste. Also oddly, I think more people would recognise the kale in bouquets rather than at the vege store. It grows remarkably well in little soil and loves the cold so is used ornamentally by city councils everywhere.  
So my favourite ways with the kale or Cavolo Nero are all about keeping it simple.
As I mentioned, I add the chopped cavolo to my beef shin mix just before I serve it to allow to cook but some other ways are:

 Ribollita Soup -an Italian Classic just isn't the same with out a big handful of cavolo added to it. This truly wintery soup is all about what is stored away for the lean months so it is heavy with beans, left over old bread, tinned tomatoes, sometimes even a bacon hock or two but the cavolo is left in for quite a while to really cook through nicely.

Stir frying cavolo or kale with a heap of crushed garlic is possibly one of my favourite winter treats. Heat a little grape seed oil in a wok till just about smoking. Add 3-4 crushed garlic cloves and 1 teaspoon salt. I then add as much freshly washed, still damp cavolo as I can fit into the wok and mix it together well. Place a lid on the wok and allow the excess moisture on the leaves to steam it. Cook 2 minutes then remove the lid and dish out onto a plate.
I really enjoy this with other wintery delights such as good old mushrooms on toast, simple roast chicken, mash potato and a beautifully cooked piece of quality eye fillet....
It is very much a textural veg that should be enjoyed for the fact that is dark and chewy.
My other all time must make once a week favourite right now is meatballs on soft polenta with cavolo nero. I am a big fan of polenta but when talking with people I find that they think of it as very bland and gluggy. Made from corn, it has little to no nutrional quality at all but that certainly doesn't mean it has to be tasteless! I think of it as a vehicle for flavours as it sucks up anything you add to it. Parmesan and polenta are very good friends as is cream or any dairy for that matter and wine. It can be served wet as below or cooked and set then grilled or baked for another versatile addition to the table.
You will find it in several formats at any good food-store. One is a fast cooked version ready in a matter of minutes. This is almost like parboiled rice and is fine if you are short of time. The other formats require more stirring and are usually a coarse grain or a finer grain. Both require 25-30 minutes of your attention and an arm happy to stand and stir continuously for that period. Italians will likely tell you the way I make it wrong and somewhat sacrilegious but I like the way it turns out so I am happy.

Pork and Veal Meatballs on Soft Polenta with Cavolo Nero
Serves 6-8

For the sauce
3 tins quality chopped tomatoes
½ bottle red wine
2 teaspoons salt
1 teaspoon pepper
3 cloves garlic, crushed finely
2 red onions, peeled and finely chopped

In a deep and heavy based casserole dish, heat a little grape seed oil and add the onion and garlic to brown gently. Add the tomatoes, mixing all well and then pour in the wine. Add the salt and pepper and the mix. Allow to just boil then reduce the heat to a low simmer.

For the Meatballs
500g free range quality pork mince
500g quality ethical veal mince
2 teaspoon salt
2 teaspoons whole fennel seeds
1 lemon zested finely
6 cloves garlic, crushed finely

In a bowl mix the meats and other ingredients together well. Using very little pressure form meat balls approx 2.5cm in diameter and rest them on a plate. If you roll too tight the meatballs will be hard when cooked.  
Heat a fry pan with a little grape seed oil and add a layer of meatballs. The idea here is simply to brown, not cook through so be very gentle when you turn then to brown on each side. Remove as soon as they are browned and place into the tomato sauce.

Cook the sauce either on the stove or in the oven covered on a low heat for 2 hours. This part can be done well advance if you like and then reheated.
Once it is time to start assembling the meal itself, remove the lid of the meatballs and bring back to a simmer so a little excess liquid can reduce away.

For the polenta
250-300g fine grain polenta
200g butter
1.2-1.5 litres water (or stock)
250ml cream
200ml white wine
Salt and pepper to taste

In a separate heavy based saucepan heat the butter till melted. Add the polenta and mix well with the butter.
Add enough warm water to make a sluggy mix and stir. Keep stirring and add all the water, stirring wildly as you go. I use a whisk for this part as it easier to control.
Keep stirring and add the white wine. You will begin to see that the textures of the grains themselves are softening and the whole mass is looking less grainy.
After 15 minutes of good honest stirring I add the cream and stir well again. Make sure at this stage that you are being careful to stir fast enough t stop exploding bubbles of polenta hit you. They burn believe me!
Once you feel it is at a stage that each mouthful will be soft and wonderful and not grainy and gritty then you are done!
Take off the heat and stir though a good helping of freshly grated good parmesan and add pepper and salt to taste.

Tip the whole lot out onto a massive platter with a lid and make a well in the middle. Spoon in the meatballs and sauce and garnish with a big handful of freshly chopped Italian parsley and more black pepper.

To the side I add a big bowlful of just stir-fried cavolo nero (as above) and have on hand a rather large quantity of red wine and good friends.


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