Frequent Dream of Italy contributor Toni Lydecker (we just love her piece on Christmas Eve in Sicily) has a delicious new cookbook out, Piatto Unico: When One Course Makes a Real Italian Meal. “As you have no doubt heard and observed, a real Italian meal consists of several courses. Except when it doesn’t,” Toni says. Based on this idea, Toni’s cookbook celebrates the one-course Italian meal.
As she acknowledges, leisurely multi-course meals are indeed the norm in Italy. At the same time, the concept of a piatto unico is well established and growing in popularity. Italians are eating this way more often at home and restaurants are finding ways to accommodate customers who choose to eat just one course, whether regularly or only occasionally. We asked Toni to share one of her favorite recipes from Piatto Unico:
Buckwheat-Corn Polenta with Fontina (Polenta Taragna con Fontina)
Visiting the Piedmont one fall, we decided to stay overnight in Cuneo and quickly discovered that a festival celebrating the fat chestnuts called marrone was in full swing. Shirtless, sweating men in the center of town were roasting chestnuts, while others stirred polenta taragna in vast cast iron cauldrons–all of this taking place over open fires. I decided to buy a bowlful of polenta–just one, because we had dinner plans–and the three of us stood in the street, dipping our spoons into the steaming, utterly delicious porridge, laced with melting chunks of local toma cheese.
Later that night, following a less than memorable dinner, I regretted that I hadn’t eaten my fill of that remarkable polenta. Making it at home doesn’t quite replicate that experience, but when stone-ground meal is used, it comes close.
Makes 4 to 6 servings
Prep: 5 minutes
Cook: 25 to 30 minutes
2 cups buckwheat-corn polenta (see Note) or coarse cornmeal, preferably stone-ground
Sea salt or kosher salt
Freshly ground black pepper (optional)
4 ounces fontina cheese (preferably from Valle d’Aosta), cut into small cubes (see Note)
1. Combine the polenta with 6 1/2 cups water and 1 teaspoon salt in a large, heavy-bottom saucepan. Over medium heat, bring to a boil, stirring once or twice.
2. Adjust the heat to a gentle simmer. Stir often to keep the polenta from sticking, and break up any incipient lumps; start with a whisk and switch to a wooden spoon as the mixture thickens. Cook until the polenta reaches the consistency of runny cooked oatmeal and tastes fully cooked, 15 to 25 minutes, depending on the coarseness of the cornmeal. Taste and stir in additional salt if needed; season to taste with pepper, if using.
4. Just before serving, stir in the cheese. Once it is softened but not melted, dish the polenta into small deep bowls or soup crocks.
Polenta taragna, a blend of coarsely ground cornmeal and buckwheat, is typical of northern Italy. It turns a Dijon mustard color when cooked and has a wonderfully earthy flavor, with a slightly bitter edge from the buckwheat. If you are able to find polenta taragna online or at a market, buy it!
Any good melting cheese with a slightly nutty flavor, such as a young Asiago or Gruyère, will taste good here.
I find this polenta wonderfully comforting on its own, but if you want to pair it with a green vegetable, steam broccoli rabe or broccoli crowns and dress them with olive oil, lemon juice, and hot red pepper flakes.
To make this dish even more substantial, stir in quartered, sautéed white or crimini mushrooms or cooked Italian sausage chunks just before adding the cheese.
— Toni Lydecker