A great deal of my late teens and early twenties were spent reading the sort of books I thought I ought to (i.e. ones that gave myself and, I secretly hoped, others the impression that I was thoughtful, sensitive, deeply intelligent and avant-garde). So I ended up ploughing through a lot of Milan Kundera, Ayn Rand, Carlos Castaneda and Aldous Huxley. Don’t get me wrong, it was all great literature and I was certainly the better for it (because, of course, I am thoughtful, sensitive, deeply intelligent and avant-garde) — it’s just that, well, a lot of them were hard work.
Latterly, I’ve begun to realise that what really makes me happy is curling up in bed with a large packet of crisps and the latest Terry Pratchett/ Stephen King/Carl Hiaasen. There, my shameful secret is out. Though I experience little more than a twinge of guilt whenever my eye happens to settle on my unread copy of Nabokov’s Lolita, or Barbara Kingsolver’s The Lacuna, or Joseph Heller’s Catch-22 — because although I made a concerted effort, I could not get past the first 20 pages.
I feel a much stronger twinge when I catch sight of my copy of Mastering the Art of French Cooking, which glares at me accusingly from my kitchen shelf (because I cannot bring myself to pack it away).
Like so many, I rushed out and bought a copy of MTAFC (exorbitantly priced, considering it was a paperback with no pictures) after seeing Julie & Julia. I made a fairly successful cheese soufflé from it about a year-and-a-half ago, and I haven’t picked it up since. You see, it’s one of those cookbooks I feel I ought to like, but really it just feels like hard work. It’s too prescriptive. Too... I don’t know. I just get the impression that I am being sized up by the ghost of Julia Child and found wanting.
Now, give me a copy of Giorgio Locatelli’s Made in Italy, A River Café book or anything by Skye Gyngell, and I am in seventh heaven.
This dish does not appear in any of my cookery books, and in fact I have never seen a recipe for it, which is somewhat surprising because I have paged through many, many Italian cookbooks.
Of course, everyone knows about grilled polenta, but this happens to be my own particular version and I’m rather proud of it, because it is addictive. Personally I don’t like thick slices of polenta, grilled or otherwise. These thin squares are beautifully crunchy and golden on the outside, soft and creamy on the inside, and, with the Parmesan and salt, deeply savoury.
If you like, sprinkle a little chopped rosemary or crumble some crispy proscuitto (or both) over the polenta before grilling, but I quite like them plain. Their simple, earthy, mealy, salty, cheesy flavour is at once comforting and convivial.
They are, perhaps, to proper hors d’oeuvres what Steinbeck is to Proust (ahem), and that is precisely what I like about them: they have not the slightest hint of pretension. Serve with pre-dinner drinks.
Grilled Parmesan polenta squares
2 litres water
4 (or more, if you like) tbsp freshly grated Parmesan, plus extra for sprinkling
4 tbsp olive oil
Maldon or other good quality sea salt, and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1. In a large saucepan, bring the water to the boil and slowly whisk in the polenta. Be sure not to dump a large dollop in, or you’ll end up with lumps. A slow steady stream is best.
2. Cook on high heat for about 5 minutes until it thickens. Turn down the heat and cook for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until the polenta has the consistency of porridge.
3. Grease a large baking tray with the olive oil, then pour the polenta on it and spread out with a knife or spatula so that you have a layer of polenta no thicker than 1cm and no thinner than 5mm (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule or anything, I just like it that way).
4. Leave to cool, and after 10 or 15 minutes the polenta will have set and be hard enough to cut into squares. Gently loosen the squares, sprinkle the Parmesan over them and season with salt and pepper. Grill for about 15 minutes, or until the edges are crispy and golden. (Just a note here: you want enough olive oil in your baking tray to gently fry the polenta, so it gets grilled on the top and fried on the bottom. If you think you need a little extra olive oil, by all means add some.)
5. Transfer the polenta squares to a serving dish lined with absorbent paper towel, and top with a nice thick layer of grated Parmesan. Prepare to be humbled.