Tag Archives: news

Eating Well in Asheville

2 Jul
Photo Credit: Michael Whiteman

Photo Credit: Michael Whiteman

Asheville is a lovely town in North Carolina where hipsters meet farmers, artists meet artisans, street food meets street people, and where adventurous restaurants lure masses of hungry tourists. With an influx of Floridians escaping the heat and New Yorkers escaping the cold, it feels less “southern” and more small-scale cosmopolitan.

On business a few weeks back, I took in both its thriving arts scene and its far-reaching gastronomic offerings. I say far-reaching because (for example) you can queue for a biscuit as big as your fist at Biscuit Head, filled with regionally appropriate salty country ham buffered by a fried green tomato, some cheese, a runny egg and one of seven gravies. But this is no sloucher place — on the menu are: sriracha slaw, smoked chevre grits, kale salad, seitan sausage, brie, and smoked tomato hollandaise. There’s a stupendous marmalade bar with at least a dozen varieties of freshly-made jams to pile onto your still-warm biscuit.

At the other end of the gastro-spectrum is Curate, an always-crowded tapas restaurant run by (now famous) chef Katie Button who rose to stardom after working under José Andrés and Ferran Adrià. You’ll find a deep list of authentically Spanish dishes and a curated assemblage of Spanish sherries and wines. Don’t miss warm octopus with Spanish paprika and silken Yukon gold puree; spicy chorizo wrapped in a crisp potato chip; Moorish-spiced lamb skewer; patatas bravas (a must-have) and Spanish tortilla (a classic potato-and-onion omelet). Curate has an open kitchen with a bar-counter where you can watch a dynamo of cooks turning out small plates and excellent cocktails.

White Duck Taco’s food is equally worldly. Non-traditional fillings include Bangkok shrimp, jerk chicken, Korean bulgogi, duck with mole and banh mi tofu. They’re cheap so order lots for lunch, then walk off your meal by exploring numerous nearby galleries and workshops in the River Arts District. There’s also a branch downtown.

Not easy to find, but so worthwhile is The Bull and Beggar, which abuts the yellow-ish, hipster-ish, biker-ish Wedge Brewery, with an outdoor cinema and food trucks serving creative snacks to the assembled thirsty. The menu at rustic Bull and Beggar looks “frenchified” with terrines, rillettes and shellfish platters, but it is a rock-solid restaurant run by an extraordinarily talented chef. You’ll want one of everything, but we reveled in chef Matt Dawes’ fatted, truffled duck liver parfait; charred octopus with a memorable romesco sauce; seared broccolini with chili and anchovy; beets with fromage blanc and cumin; and roast baby chicken with wild mushrooms, red currants, game chips, upland cress and liver toast. Quirky, wonderful wine list.

Formerly chef at much-lauded Blackberry Farm in Tennessee, where he re-invented Southern cookery, John Fleer now runs Rhubarb in Asheville. Rhubarb specializes in boldly flavored dishes that range across the globe. Roasted oysters with country ham and greens, Mongolian lamb ribs with collard green kimchee, rhubarb glazed duck confit with sweet potatoes Anna and shaved asparagus, and IPA-marinated cauliflower steak with flageolet cassoulet and arugula pesto (Whew! The ingredients just keep coming). Well organized wine list that’s easy on the wallet.

The Bull and Beggar, Rhubarb and many others in town get their vegetables and greens from Evan Chender’s Culinary Gardener, which I wrote about two weeks ago.

Barbecue addicts can’t do better than 12 Bones, on the edge of the arts district. A big smoker out back slowly transforms all manner of protein into redolent and succulent barbecue sandwiches or platters. A go-to sandwich is Hogzilla, a layering of sugar bacon, bratwurst, pulled pork and pepper jack cheese. Although I can’t quite wrap my mind around the concept, blueberry-chipotle is their most ordered sauce.

Here’s how to start a perfect evening: Head over to Battery Park Book Exchange in the Grove Arcade. This quirky used-book store contains a lovely champagne bar with a large by-the-glass selection and comfy places to sit, sip and snack.

Here’s how to end a perfect evening: Climb the stairs to Nightbell, a restaurant-lounge run by Katie Button. Signature cocktails are perfect and desserts are first-rate.

And here’s how trendy Asheville is: The menu at Table includes barbecued fish collars, asparagus chawanmushi, and striped bass with nasturtium butter. All Souls Pizza mills it own flour and offers hand-cut rye noodles with fermented turnips and charred spring onions, and smoked sardines with salsa verde. Curate’s menu tells you which dishes are vegan or gluten- lactose- and tree-nut free. At the hot Mexican restaurant Limones, your “Mayan margarita” glass is crusted with chapulin salt, “chapulin” made of dried, ground crickets. Down at a nearby farmers market, Cricket Girl sells cricket-based protein bars and is aiming for veggie packed smoothies thickened with her insect protein-flour combination. Toto… we’re not in Brooklyn anymore.

Sugar and Sweets

23 Jun

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In my formative years as a budding chef and food writer, I did an unusual thing and read the mammoth Larousse Gastronomique, all 1,168 pages with its thousands of entries, cover to cover – or shall I say, from abaisse (a term used in French cookery for a sheet of rolled-out pastry) to zuppa inglese (a Neapolitan pudding). The first English edition appeared in 1971, when I was 17 and already a bartender mixing Negronis in Queens, New York. (For those who might remember, it was the Olde London Fishery on Union Turnpike.)

This memory was triggered when a voluminous book, The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets (Oxford University Press, 2015) about the size of a three-pound box of Godiva chocolates, appeared on my desk last week. With more than 850 pages and 600 articles about the arresting history of sugar and sweets, I have decided to repeat my own history and take this encyclopedic work to bed with a cup of tea or a pony of alkermes. Poignantly, this book, too, ends with an entry about zuppa inglese (written by author Clifford A. Wright) with an interesting debate over the dessert’s true origin (is it from Naples as friend and food writer Arthur Schwartz insists, or Lazio, or Tuscany, as others suggest?)

The book begins, not with abaisse but with another nod to the French, a la mode – followed by a three-page entry about sugar addiction, contributed by Ashley Gearhardt. Such is the width and breadth of this alluring new tome. Under the brilliant baton of food writer and historian Darra Goldstein, 265 experts in the culinary world have weighed in with well-researched commentaries about an irresistible subject. A la mode, by the way, translates to “in the current fashion.” According to contributor Carolin Young, “In France a la mode refers to a traditional recipe for braised beef, which at one time was considered a new fashion,” whereas in America the phrase refers to a scoop of vanilla ice cream served with a slice of pie.

Evocatively, the first line of the book’s foreword begins: “I can remember easily the first time I stood deep in a field of sugarcane in full bloom, a field already marked for harvesting. It was spring of 1948, and I had just begun fieldwork in Puerto Rico.” Written by Sidney Mintz (who is 92 and considered “the godfather of food studies”), this triggered another profound memory. The year was 1962 and I was standing deep in a field of sugarcane when I was eight years old. The location was Belle Glade, Florida, where my cousins ran a plantation and owned the local movie theater. I will never forget the sickeningly sweet smell of extracted molasses wafting through the wet heat of the day from the factory nearby. It made me woozy. Which, of course, is what sugar does, and accounts for, in part, why we love it and sometimes loathe it.

The history of sugar is not all sweet. There is much suffering in the quest for this cherished foodstuff. Our hunger for sugar fed the institution of slavery, led to ugly legacies of racism, to the invasion of weaker nations by stronger ones to manipulate sugar prices, and to the exploitation of children and minorities who worked the fields. Bravo to the book’s editors for not sugar-coating the more painful aspects of its past.

Whereas this is an encyclopedia, meant to be dipped in and out of at leisure, it is unlike any other I’ve seen. There are hundreds of illustrations including mouthwatering paintings by Wayne Thiebaud (a personal favorite), Andy Warhol, and Will Cotton, a handful of historical recipes, and more than 600 erudite essays by pastry chefs, neuroscientists, food historians, and chemists, about what has become a grand metaphor for human pleasure. Equally satisfying are the book’s comprehensive appendices – anthologies of films, songs, outstanding pastry shops, and museums around the world, dedicated to our universal, and historical, predilection for sugar and sweets, first evidenced by Eve and an apple.

I’m not sure if I’m more excited learning about wasanbon (the most famous sugar used in traditional Japanese confectionery), or sitophilia (which describes sexual arousal involving food), but lurking between the candy-coated endpapers of The Oxford Companion to Sugar and Sweets, is something gratifying for everyone.

New Food Trends 2015

17 Dec
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Vegetable-flavored ice cream

At the end of every year, platoons of food professionals — consultants, chefs, writers and research firms — race to predict the trends that will influence foodies all over America and ergo the world. According to Carol Tice from Forbes, the forecast released in mid-November by Baum+ Whiteman international restaurant consultants, was “one of the most fascinating.” You can check out their full report of 11 dining trends plus 22 hot restaurant buzzwords for 2015 here.

Although I am married to Mr. Whiteman, his prognostications were unknown to me until they were released on Nov. 11th. The trends sit in telling categories: how the importance of technology will profoundly change the way restaurants function; how the notion of authenticity has less relevance, and how our lust for new and different has resulted in “restless palate syndrome” — meaning that we can’t leave simple food alone. One upon a time we liked salty, sweet, spicy, smoky, fatty and bitter flavors — but now we want them all at once. In other words, “too much ain’t enough.”

The report, picked up by an Arabic newspaper, focuses on the importance of hummus, which Whiteman says, is probably the most mispronounced word in our country’s food vocabulary. It gobbles up shelf space in our supermarkets because of a profusion of flavors added to what simply is a chickpea dip eaten in Israel and Arab countries. It now comes in dizzying variations including red pepper, chimichurri, lemongrass-chili and even chocolate mousse! (I’ve recently discovered a hummus ice cream in Tel Aviv).

Or take beer. Cocktails with beer are finding favor in trendy bars. Meanwhile, Micheladas are creeping up on us. Micheladas are Mexican beer concoctions that invite you to dump in all manner of spices — bloody Mary mix, chipotle-tomato juice, soy sauce, beef broth and tequila …you get the idea: beer for restless palate people who’ve become blase about just a pint of IPA.

They also note in their predictions that honey is being “enhanced” with ghost peppers; that bourbon is being flavored with honey and chili pepper or with pumpkin pie spices; that while the fixation of everything-bacon may be abating, now there’s ‘ndjua, a light-up-your-mouth spreadable sausage from Calabria that’s finding its way onto pasta, melted over pork chops, even blended into vinaigrettes as sauces for fish. “If bold flavors are a trend” they say, “this eye-stinging, red-peppered mushy salami is next year’s bold flavor.”

Do strawberries taste sweeter on a black plate or a white plate? On a square plate or a round plate? Their forecast about “neurogastronomy” — how your mind and body can be manipulated to enhance how you sense and taste food –is required reading. So is their comical rant about overpriced avocado.

Among their predictions: The death of tipping, and a reduction in the vast earnings gap between tipped waiters and low-paid cooks and dishwashers; fine dining chefs ditching flowers, linens, reservation systems and expensive china, instead going downscale to develop fast-casual restaurants; insects as food as we search for renewable sources of proteins; savory ice creams and yogurts as consumers realize how much sugar they’re getting in sweetened cold treats; the war on waste is gaining traction; pistachios will be the nut of the year; authentic Jewish delis and also Jewish-ethnic mashups; savory waffles and waffle sandwiches; matcha (green tea powder) in fancy beverages and even seafood stocks and sauces; night markets, building on food truck rodeos, growing around the country with multi-ethnic festivals that bring thousands to riverfronts and public squares.

In their trend called “Soda Fountain Crashes the Bar,” Baum+Whiteman sees childhood treats boozed up as adult shakes and smoothies with bourbon, gin, Frangelico, Galliano, Chartreuse.

Even coconut and cucumber waters, promoted as somehow being “purer,” are being overlaid (or adulterated) with flavors like coffee and mango and with energy-boosting ingredients. Now maple water and birch sap are being tested.

Finally, clever computer programs now allow high-end restaurants to sell tickets for dinner rather than take reservations. Eating out could become as hateful as dealing with the airlines, the consultants say, with cancellation penalties and price shifting based upon demand for seats or time of day.

My adds? Cabbage. Food as medicine. Page oranges from Florida. Tahina is the new mayonnaise. It will come in as many colors (and flavors) as a box of crayons. See you in 2015.

You can also check out the National Restaurant Association’s list for the coming year, Carol Tice’s report from Forbes, and this article from Cosmopolitan.

Spring Review

13 Mar

springreviewIt’s time for a Spring Review since beginning my blog in 2010. I’ve written more than 300 entries and wanted to share the best with you. Because of instantaneous access to one another via the Internet, the “world’s table” is now on public view. It is my goal, then, as a journalist, chef, author, restaurant consultant and food trends junkie, to help set the table with decades of perspective. When Vladimir Nabokov got around to writing his memoir, he called it “Speak, Memory.”  When writing my blog, I issue a similar command to myself:  “Taste, Memory!” I seek ways to connect the reader emotionally to his or her own gastronomic wavelength.

Just as Anna Quindlen writes about her keen observations about life – tying together politics, family, and one’s inner experience, often with whimsy — I have written my voice into daily, and weekly, connections to food, dining, cooking, history, biography and memoir. Each entry is a deliberate serving of the past, present and future – whether connecting the uprising in Egypt to my respect for Naguib Mafouz and my fondness for Egyptian cooking (with a contemporary photo of a young man preparing an ancient dish of ful mudammas); or experiencing the soul of Philadelphia-chef Marc Vetri through his singular approach to food and cooking and told his story by deeming him a “culinary bodhisattva.” A posting about “white carrots” informs the misinformed (which at times can be most of us), with an observation backed up with a bit of history, some speculation, and a few recipes to make the point. Included is a mesmerizing photo of carrots.

I believe that a younger generation of “food passionistas” – a term I coined for the group of dedicated, enthusiastic, and obsessively curious types about the world of food, chefs, and cooking – are in need of less hype, and more information, in an accessible  way. Inspired by the daily experiences of life in my kitchen, life in other people’s kitchens, learning at the hands of some of the industry’s most influential tastemakers, the purpose of my blog is not to attract advertisers or lure masses of readers; rather, it is an intimate, highly personal, often funny view of the world of food. Every blog posting puts my readers in-the-know about something timely. As a bonus, there’s always a “goody bag” in which one finds original recipes, ways to use new ingredients, food and wine pairing ideas, tips for entertaining, news about the coolest chefs and hottest restaurants. Or something more personal – a taste experience (ever try bitter chocolate, Parmigiano-Reggiano and sweet red grapes?); a mind stimulant (what about making marmalade from carrots?), or a new technique (like my deconstructed “wined-and-brined turkey,” or making cream cheese via “drip irrigation”).

Cooking is not merely about measurement and temperature, and the culinary world is not merely about gastronomy or nutrition. Food has deep historic and emotional resonances, and profound historical connections — think about “feast” or “famine” or “bread riots.”

Food is familial and simultaneously social: We break bread together and then divide the world into pig-eaters or pig-shunners.

When one writes well about food, all these factors come into play, consciously or not. One should know that The Gleaners in Millet’s famous painting reach backward historically to biblical injunctions not to harvest to the corners of the field, but to leave food for the poor. One should know that without the discovery of the Americas, there would be no tomatoes in Naples, no paprika in Budapest, no chocolate in Zurich. One should know something about why certain foods connect to certain religious festivals – why, for example, we serve lamb at Easter and also at Passover, and why both “feasts” relate to activities around the table.

What my mother cooked for the her family is different from what my readers’ mothers did then or do today, but they all set standards for how we view not just what’s on our plate, but how we will relate to a larger world – one in which even the present seems to vaporize in an instant.

Please take a moment to enjoy the posts below, and I encourage you to search the archives for others that may be of interest to you.

Cooking in Silence

Chocolate Dirt: Is it Art or is it Dinner?

Insanely Delicious Fresh Figs

Eating Your Way Through 2013

31 Dec

nyeThis has been a year of great upheaval, transition and growth for the planet, and for many of you this week may be a time for personal reflection and resolution-making.  I, for one, have promised myself to meditate daily, spend more time with my family, shop more carefully, entertain more often, and eat more mindfully.  Some of that has to do with paying attention to the upcoming trends this year.  Although it may be goofy to say, (I mean the word gourmet is so retro), “budget gourmet” restaurants — hipster places with cutting-edge food that 30-something’s can afford — are sprouting up faster than you can chew a mouthful of kale (which is everywhere.)

“Farm-to-Bar” — if you’re looking for future flavors then sidle up to your nearest artisan boozerie.  You will find fruits, vegetables, fresh herbal syrups, zested citrus bitters — all house-made — lining the bar top and perfuming your drinks.  I now make my own chamomile vodka (from fresh chamomile flowers) every spring and store in it the freezer.  A smart bartender will invent his/her own signature/locavore V-8.

Ingredients you’ve never heard of: Tokyo turnips, satsumas, hiramasa, squailen, astice, puffed basil seeds, scallion ash.

Feasts for sharing:  Nose-to-tail dinners — whole roasted pigs, lambs, etc. for a group of gorgers.  For example Momofuku’s Korean “bo ssam” family-style format includes a dozen oysters, a whole roasted pork shoulder, kimchee and condiments. Price? $200.

Eating in your zip code: radical locavore-ism continues with niche marketing to vegivores (a new word for me thanks to Adam Platt of New York Magazine).

The ancient flavors of Jerusalem:  Check out the fabulous new cookbook “Jerusalem” by Yotam Ottolenghi and Sami Tamimi, and the new “Middleterranean” cooking (a hybrid of Mediterranean and Middle Eastern cuisines) in restaurants such as New York’s Taboon and Philadelphia’s Zahav.

The culinary wizardry of young Asian chefs forging a new identity: check out Nancy Matsumoto’s riveting article in the Atlantic.

Pop-ups keep popping up:  Restaurants, cookie stores, juice joints, snack bars, underground dining clubs in unexpected places.

Food as edible landscapes: check out my Chocolate Dirt piece in the Huff Post.

Prediction:  Congee (with lots of mix-ins and add-ons — and not just for breakfast.)

If you’re interested in the most ambitious and erudite trends list around, check out Michael Whiteman’s prognostications at www.baumwhiteman.com.  (He’s my husband but I’m really objective here.)  He, with his partner, the late Joe Baum, created some of the world’s largest grossing and most magical restaurants (the Rainbow Room, Windows on the World, and the Big Kitchen — the world’s first fast food court.)  Michael was also the founding editor of Nation’s Restaurant News — still going strong.   He can nose a trend as deeply as a truffle pig can hunt in Perigord.

Merry, happy, healthy.  May the New Year be a fulfilling one.

Here’s a healthy new recipe to get started:

Rigatoni with kale, chicken sausage & black olives

2 packed cups finely chopped kale leaves 12 ounces chicken sausage, removed from casing ¼ cup diced pitted kalamata or oil-cured black olives 12 grapes tomatoes, quartered Large pinch of red pepper flakes ½ cup chicken broth 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil 8 ounces uncooked penne rigati 1/3 cup freshly grated parmigiano-reggiano

Preheat oven to 400 degrees. Put kale, crumbled sausage, olives, tomatoes and pepper flakes in a large deep sauté pan with a cover. Pour chicken broth on top and drizzle olive oil over the mixture. Cover and bake 30 minutes. Meanwhile bring a large pot of salted water to a boil.  Cook pasta 10 minutes until tender. Drain well. Remove pan from oven. Place on burners over medium heat. Add pasta and toss. Add cheese and salt to taste. Stir and cook 1 to 2 minutes.  Optional: Dust with freshly grated lemon zest. Serves 4

Who Needs Quinoa More Than You Do?

4 Dec

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A guest at our Thanksgiving Leftovers Dinner raved about a quinoa stuffing she’d made for her own family’s annual feast the day before. I cringed a bit because few of us comprehend the dark side of our trendy infatuation with this ancient food from high in the arid Andes.

Quinoa is the only plant that’s a source of a complete protein; it packs so many nutrients into so little space that NASA called it an ideal food for astronauts.

America’s upper classes, relentlessly striving to eat themselves into good health, have latched onto quinoa as a “superfood,” and are gobbling up tons of it. As a result, you have this gastronomic madness of stuffing an already protein-rich turkey with protein-rich quinoa, when stale bread or bulgur wheat or rice or corn would do just as well — but with far less collateral damage to the citizens of Bolivia, Ecuador and Peru, where this stuff is grown.

Our quinoa craze may be enriching farmers who grow the stuff — prices, by some estimates, have tripled in recent years — and they now can afford mechanized farm equipment, solid houses and college education for their children. That’s the good news. They send us quinoa, we send them money — sounds like a perfect example of globalization. The bad news is that this boom is wrecking the diets of indigenous people who actually need to eat it, because they no longer can afford to purchase this life-sustaining vegetable. (We generally think of quinoa as a grain, but it’s actually a seed of vegetable related to chard.) Even more ironic, the children of these prosperous growers now can afford junk food, so newly acquired wealth is impacting their diets, too.

There are reports that quinoa consumption among those who actually live on it is down by about a third in the years since we’ve “discovered” this 5,000-year-old seed, and that nutritionally at-risk natives of quinoa-growing countries now only can afford cheaper, less nourishing rice or, worse yet, processed food. It starts to sound like right here, where many Americans purchase cheap, nutritionally suspect processed food because they can’t afford the real thing.

Minuscule quinoa seeds are cooked more or less like rice, and the result can be a substitute for any starchy component of a meal. You can use it as a cereal for breakfast or as a pilaf at dinner; you can make a tabbouleh-like salad for your kid’s lunchbox or thicken a soup; you can use it instead of couscous or add it to your chicken curry. Much of it is labeled “organic” or “non-GMO” or “gluten-free” or “fair trade” — adding a feel-good appeal to Americans who go soft in their legs when they see the word “sustainable” but who may be unaware that they’re taking food from the mouths of children elsewhere.

What’s more, the land used for quinoa crops is fragile and depends upon delicate balance between agriculture and herds of llamas, which help fertilize the area and whose large padded feet prevent erosion. These herds are being reduced to make room for more crops, which suggests that eventually they’ll need artificial fertilizer to maintain production, undermining one of quinoa’s fundamental market appeals.

So what should we do? None of what I’ve written means we should stop buying quinoa, because then we’d return the Andean farmers to their former states of poverty. Instead, it suggests to me that if we’re cooking a meal that might require a nutritional boost — especially if we’re vegetarians or have celiac disease, or if we’re outbound in a space capsule — then quinoa starts to make some gastronomic sense. But if we’ve already got a wholesome meal in the oven, we don’t need to overload it with superfluous “goodness” while removing disproportionate quantities of quinoa from countries where it is needed far more.

Perhaps this is a better feel-good approach.

Polenta: The Next Big Thing?

2 Jul

Not long ago, in the epicenter of Brooklyn’s culinary scene, I had a delightful dinner in a place called Osteria il Paiolo. Williamsburg, Brooklyn, home to some of the world’s hippest dining venues, is a multi-culti morass of righteous Jews, old-time Italians and Dominicans, and newly-converted food passionistas with young families and big dreams. It is also home to one of the only places I know that features polenta as its calling card, authentically made in an “il paiolo” — a large unlined copper pot — the traditional vessel in northern Italy in which to s-l-o-w-l-y stir ground cornmeal into boiling water and salt until thick and creamy. It is sturdier than porridge and more sublime than its humble ingredients might imply. I was no more than 19 years old when I first met its acquaintance during a trip to northern Italy. It was there that I had one of the my most memorable dishes of my life: A thick slice of Gorgonzola dolce onto which was poured a stream of hot buttery polenta across its girth. An exercise in simplicity, its creamy texture and unexpected melding of flavors and fragrances, was downright sinful. And while not the traditional form polenta usually takes, it remains a love-at-first bite memory.

While the good people of Tuscany are known as “bean-eaters” because of their culinary proclivity towards legumes, the Piemontese locals are known as polentone. Apparently, everyone in Piedmont eats polenta all the time, and have done so before the Roman empire! (At that time, polenta was made from other grains such as millet, barley, and farro. Corn, or maize, appeared in the 16th century.)

That said, I was excited to try the polenta, and all the other good things I had heard about, at the dining spot loosely translated as “the polenta pot.” It is an osteria which, in Italy, connotes a rather casual restaurant where the owner is also the host: Enter Alex Palumbo. Alex, a native of northern Italy’s Piedmont region, was primed to bring the signature dish of his family’s kitchen to slightly tonier environs. Amidst a sprawl of white table-clothed tables in an industrial modern space, one can dine very well indeed. In addition to the myriad ways to eat polenta, topped with tomatoes and quail, with shrimp and rosemary, with fontina, are exemplary antipasti and main courses — we especially loved the homemade sausage with savory cabbage served in a terracotta casserole, and my husband said his roasted quail, prepared with pancetta, cream and sage, was the best he ever had. Good, too, was the unusual pappardelle al cioccolata, chocolate pasta with a wild boar and vegetable ragu.

Unbeknownst to me, authentic polenta is made with only water and salt, not the butter and cheese we have come to expect. But along the way, the latter ingredients have become commonplace. And while the ingredients may be 1-2-3, the mastery is in the preparation: Polenta must be slowly stirred for up to 45 minutes for its requisite creaminess and flavor. There are huge copper paiolo pots that have electric motors attached, but at Alex’s osteria, everything is lovingly stirred by a mano (by hand.) Alex gets his heirloom polenta — which is coarse and toothsome — from a “secret source” in Italy and claims that no one else in New York (ergo the country) has it. At last count, the kitchen is stirring up more than 60 pound per month, up from 10 pounds when he first got started, not so long ago. Clearly, the locals are catching on.

In my own kitchen at home, I make polenta with tomatoes and Parmigiano-Reggiano as one of my ultimate comfort dishes, and on occasion, indulge in that time-honored memory of gorgonzola topped with steaming polenta. Only now I gild the dish with a tuft of balsamic-tinged wild arugula and anoint it all with my best extra-virgin olive oil on top. And I am still enamored of Colman Andrews’ polenta with oranges and olive oil from his wonderful book, Flavors of the Riviera. The potential for polenta is promising, perhaps turning us all into polentone one day.

Osteria il Paiolo, 106 North 6th Street, Brooklyn, NY 11211 (www.ilpaiolonyc.com)

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