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Seasonal Cooking:
Risotto, Polenta and Pan Noodle Cakes

2003 Copyright by Terese Allen

All cooks face that profound, age-old question: "What should I make for dinner?" It's especially difficult to know what to serve in winter, when fresh, local foodstuffs are lacking and your imagination feels as frozen as the potted plants you left on the porch last fall.

The media often is little help, with its mixed messages promoting everything from fast food to Slow Food, from wholesome to haute. Professionals may be able to manage the fashion and fusion of contemporary cooking, but most folks are not trained chefs, with their vegetable foams and vertical presentations. We're home cooks. We need simple, from-scratch recipes that lend themselves to everyday variation.

Like musicians who play regular gigs or mystery writers who vary their formula, real cooks need a repertoire--a series of delicious, dependable dishes they know by heart and can alter at will. Omelets and stir-fries fit the mold; so do soups and stews. For something different, though, consider risotto, polenta and savory pan noodle cakes.

All three are quick to prepare and open to seasonal adaptation--the kind of dish that, once you've mastered the easy technique, becomes a no-recipe-needed main course. Serve any of them with a tossed salad or side of fruit (and perhaps a glass of wine), and dinner is served. They're inexpensive, nourishing and best of all, fun to make. 

Risotto Rules
Risotto, a classic rice concoction of Italian descent, is an old world dish that has become as familiar as mashed potatoes to Americans. It can be made with any number of starchy, short-grain rice varieties, which turn creamy when slowly and steadily simmered in broth. Arborio, by far the most readily available type, can be found at Italian specialty markets and well-stocked grocery stores. I look for--and trust--Arborio that is labeled superfino. While I don't have a brand preference, I've noticed that different brands cook at different rates and some require more liquid than others.

Risotto begins by sautéing onions, shallots or other savory seasonings in a little oil or butter. Then stir in short-grain rice to infuse it with the flavor of the fat. Typically a little wine goes in at this point, too. Next stir in hot broth (chicken, vegetable, seafood, etc.) in small amounts until the rice is tender and becomes suspended in its own smooth sauce. Vegetables, meat, seafood or other ingredients may be added and often a pungent cheese is stirred in just before serving.

Some cooks balk at the twenty to thirty minutes of stirring that most risotto recipes call for. But is constant stirring really necessary? Not according to Sarah Fritschner, who researched risotto-making methods in a March/April 1994 Cook's Illustrated article. She concluded that while some stirring is required "to liberate the amylopectin molecules that swell to make the sauce," you don't have to stir risotto continuously to get the right texture.

So I leave risotto to its own devices for a few moments at a time to go about other dinner-making business (tossing salad, setting the table, etc.) and still get the preferred results: an unctuous amalgamation of al dente grains and velvety sauce.

Polenta Power
Polenta is another everyday dish that suffers from a misconception about how much stirring it requires to reach its creamy ideal. But if you follow the no-stir technique outlined by Paula Wolfert in Fine Cooking magazine (March 1999), all you have to do is combine cornmeal, liquid (stock, milk or water) and salt in a non-stick pan or baking dish and set it in a hot oven. Forty-five minutes later the polenta is smooth, fully cooked and ready for embellishments.

That's it, and it works.

Plain polenta can be the base for stews or sauces and almost anything that’s good on pasta is good on polenta. Try simple additions, too, like sautéed garlic and collard greens, toasted hickory nuts and blue cheese crumbles or caramelized onions and Gruyere. You can give your attention to preparing these while the polenta bakes.

Noodles in a Pan
Creating a savory, pan-cooked noodle cake is as easy as, well, pie. Actually, it's much easier. Simply combine cooked pasta, eggs, fresh herbs and savory ingredients like vegetables, meats or cheese, then cook the mixture over high heat in a large, non-stick skillet. If the pasta is already cooked the whole process can take as little as 15 minutes: After combining the ingredients, press them into a hot pan and cook until the first side is brown. Then, don a pair of oven mitts, flip the cake onto a platter, slide it back into the pan, and brown the other side. Slip the cake back onto the platter and you're ready to serve.

That's my kind of food: cooks fast, tastes slow.


Variations on a Theme
You can dress up--and deeply flavor--any repertoire dish with aged cheese, dried porcini mushrooms, saffron or fresh seafood. Or keep it casual with basics from your pantry and freezer, like bottled roasted red peppers or that sweet corn you bagged last summer.

Cold weather ingredients that are particularly suited to risotto are butternut squash, hardy greens like collards and kale, leftover roast meat and smoked sausage. One of my favorite combinations is asparagus and ham, featuring farmers' market spears frozen last spring and quality ham from a local butcher shop.  

Even containers of leftovers in your refrigerator can be an inspiration. For example, when life gives you leftover chicken, fold it into a pot of risotto along with the last of the pesto sauce. Or, if you couldn't resist that special on organic spinach, turn the extra bagful into a topping for polenta.

If you're feeling creative, gear the flavors and fillings to a special theme. Make a Spanish-style noodle cake using olive oil, garlic, imported olives and rosemary, or go Asian with sesame oil, ginger root, green onions and baked tofu.

Almost everything about repertoire dishes is negotiable. Serve them as an entree or side dish. Decrease the recipe amounts for a two-serving version, or increase them to feed a crowd. Complement polenta with a saucy topping or chunky filling. Make your risotto thick or thin. Create a layered effect in your noodle cake by pressing half the pasta into the pan, spreading on some cheese then adding the remaining pasta.

Are leftover risotto, polenta and noodle cakes good to eat? By all means. Some chefs frown upon the idea of warmed up risotto, but personally I look forward to the next day's lunch, when I sprinkle water over a plateful of rice and heat it in the microwave. Leftover polenta, which firms up enough to slice and sauté, takes on a tasty second life. And as for noodle cake: in our house, the last cold slice is the real test of which spouse loves the other one more.

Try these recipes:
Savory Pan Noodle Cake
Oven Polenta with Winter Greens and Parmesan
Mushroom Risotto

Adapted from “At Ease: Easy-to-master risotto, polenta and savory pan noodle cake add variety to your seasonal repertoire,” February, 2003, Milwaukee Journal Sentinel.