Three Italian Masterpieces

There's more to Italian cooking than just pasta.


Our love affair with pasta is being challenged by three other Italian inventions. The candidates for our affections:

Risotto (rih-SAW-toh). In Venice, it's even more popular than pasta. That takes some doing because you don't just plop the Arborio rice (an Italian short-grain rice) into boiling water and forget it. You pay attention the whole way through, stirring rice constantly and adding more hot stock or broth as it is absorbed. The result is a creamy rice dish that is surprisingly unmushy. (Our Test Kitchen has worked out an almost-as-good, easier technique using long grain rice.) See Risotto Primavera.

Polenta (poh-LEN-tah). Yes, it is cornmeal mush, but what cornmeal mush! The Italians start out by mixing the cornmeal with cold water before adding it to the boiling water, stirring constantly, of course. (This makes it creamier than plain cornmeal.) Then they are apt to add cheese or tomato sauce or any number of their other bright flavor ideas. See Polenta with Red Pepper Sauce.

Gnocchi (NYOH-kee). These are the Italian version of dumplings, made with potatoes, farina, or flour. The dough is formed into dumplings and chilled until cooking time. They are cooked in boiling water and are in good company with meat or poultry. See Gnocchi in Gorgonzola Sauce.

The beginning directions are similar to rice pilaf, but the addition of liquid is decidedly different.

Ingredients:
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced celery
  • 1/4 cup thinly sliced shallots or green onion
  • 2 cloves garlic, minced
  • 1/8 tsp. pepper
  • 1 Tbsp. butter or margarine
  • 1 cup Arborio or long grain rice
  • 14-1/2-oz. can reduced-sodium chicken broth
  • 1-3/4 cups water
  • 1/2 cup fresh or frozen peas, thawed
  • 1/2 cup coarsely chopped yellow summer squash and/or zucchini peel lemon shredded finely.

Traditional method: In a 3-quart saucepan cook celery, shallots or green onion, garlic, and pepper in hot butter or margarine until tender but not brown. Add the uncooked rice. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more.

In a 1-quart saucepan bring broth and water to boiling. Add 3/4 cup of the broth mixture to the rice mixture, stirring constantly over low heat until rice has absorbed most of the broth. Continue adding the broth mixture, 3/4 cup at a time, stirring constantly until rice is almost tender, but firm to the bite. (It should have a creamy consistency.) This should take about 20 minutes. During cooking, adjust the heat as necessary to keep broth at a gentle simmer. Stir in peas, squash or zucchini, and lemon peel. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Serve immediately.

Easy method: Cook celery mixture as directed above; add uncooked rice. Cook and stir for 2 minutes more. Carefully stir in broth and water. Bring to boiling; reduce heat. Cover and simmer for 25 minutes (do not lift cover). Remove from heat.

Stir in peas, squash or zucchini, and lemon peel. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes. Serve immediately. Makes 6 side-dish servings.

Nutrition facts per serving: 156 cal., 3 g total fat (0 g sat. fat), 0 mg chol., 227 mg sodium, 29 g carbo., 1 g fiber, and 4 g pro. Daily Value: 11% vit. A, 6% vit. C, 2% calcium, and 11% iron.

To serve as an appetizer, place the platter of polenta and bowl of sauce over a candle or other warmer.

Ingredients:
  • 3 cups water
  • 1-1/2 cups cornmeal
  • 1-1/2 cups cold water
  • 1 tsp. salt
  • 1-1/2 cups shredded provolone cheese (6 oz.)
  • 2 medium red sweet peppers, halved and seeded
  • 2 tsp. sugar
  • 2 tsp. balsamic vinegar
  • 1/8 tsp. salt
  • Olive oil
  • Arugula leaves (optional)
Instructions:

1. For polenta, in a 3-quart saucepan bring the 3 cups water to boiling. In a medium mixing bowl combine cornmeal, the 1-1/2 cups cold water, and the 1 teaspoon salt. Slowly add cornmeal mixture to boiling water, stirring constantly. Cook and stir until mixture returns to boiling. Reduce heat to very low. Cover and simmer for 15 minutes, stirring occasionally. Stir 3/4 cup of the shredded cheese into hot polenta. Turn the hot mixture into an ungreased 13x9x2-inch pan. Cool slightly. Cover and chill for several hours or until firm.

2. Meanwhile, preheat oven to 425 F. Place pepper halves, cut side down, on a foil-lined baking sheet. Bake for 20 to 25 minutes or until skin is brown. Immediately enclose peppers in foil; seal. Let cool so the steam loosens the skins.

3. When peppers are cool enough to handle, peel off skins, using a sharp knife. In a blender container combine peeled peppers, sugar, vinegar, and salt. Cover and blend until smooth. Transfer to a small saucepan; heat through.

4. Cut the chilled polenta into 18 triangles. Arrange the triangles on a lightly greased baking sheet. Brush with olive oil. Broil 4 to 5 inches from heat for 4 minutes. Turn over triangles. Brush with more oil. Broil for 4 minutes more or until golden brown. Sprinkle remaining 3/4 cup cheese over polenta. Let stand for 2 minutes or until cheese is melted.

5. To serve, arrange polenta triangles on appetizer plates lined with arugula leaves, if desired. Top with warm pepper sauce. Makes 9 appetizer or side-dish servings.

Nutrition facts per servings: 173 cal., 7 g total fat (3 g sat. Fat), 13 mg chol., 436 mg sodium, 21 g carbo., 1 g fiber, 7 g pro. Daily Value: 17% vit. A, 46% vit. C, 12% calcium, and 7% iron.

Russets or round white potatoes work best for gnocchi because they are drier. Potatoes vary in moisture content, so you may need to add more or less flour.

Ingredients:
  • 1 lb. baking potatoes, such as Russet or round white potatoes, peeled and quartered
  • 2 Tbsp. snipped fresh chives
  • 1/4 tsp. salt
  • 1/4 tsp. pepper
  • 1 cup all-purpose flour
  • 1/4 cup finely chopped onion
  • 2 Tbsp. butter or margarine
  • 2 Tbsp. all-purpose flour
  • 1-3/4 cups milk
  • 1/4 cup crumbled Gorgonzola or blue cheese (1 oz.)
  • 3 Tbsp. dry white wine
  • Crumbled Gorgonzola or blue cheese (optional)
  • Snipped fresh chives (optional)
Instructions:

1. In a 3-quart saucepan cook potatoes, covered, in a small amount of boiling salted water for 20 to 25 minutes or until tender. Drain well. Put the potatoes through a food mill or potato ricer or mash well with a potato masher.

2. In a medium mixing bowl combine potatoes, 2 tablespoons chives, salt, and pepper. Stir with a fork until combined. Use a wooden spoon to stir in enough of the 1 cup flour to form the mixture into a ball, adding 1/4 cup flour at a time.

3. Turn the dough out onto a lightly floured surface. Knead in enough of the remaining 1 cup flour until dough is soft and not sticky to the touch (this should take about 3 minutes).

4. Divide the dough into 4 equal portions; divide each into 16 equal portions, for 64 total. Form into balls. Roll balls from a flour-dipped fork onto a waxed paper-lined baking sheet, pressing lightly with the tines of the fork as you drop them. Cover and chill the dough balls until ready to cook.

Forming gnocchi (pictured): The gnocchi should have ridges on one side and a depression on the other (the ridges become grooves to hold the sauce). Using your index finger, hold a dough ball against the inside curve of a floured fork, just below the tips of the tines. Press and roll the piece toward the fork handle. As the piece rolls away from the tines, let it drop on a waxed paper-lined baking sheet.

1. In a 3-quart saucepan cook gnocchi, half at a time, in a large amount of boiling lightly salted water for 1 to 2 minutes or until gnocchi have risen to the top and have a breadlike texture inside. Remove with a slotted spoon; keep warm while cooking remaining gnocchi and sauce.

2. For sauce, in a 1-quart saucepan cook onion in hot butter or margarine until tender but not brown. Stir in 2 tablespoons flour. Add milk all at once. Cook and stir until thickened and bubbly. Cook and stir for 1 minute more. Remove from heat. Stir in the 1/4 cup Gorgonzola or blue cheese and wine.

3. Serve gnocchi with sauce. If desired, sprinkle each serving with additional Gorgonzola or blue cheese and snipped fresh chives. Makes 8 appetizer servings.

Nutrition facts per serving: 178 cal., 5 g total fat (2 g sat. Fat), 7 mg chol., 313 mg sodium, 27 g carbo., 1 g fiber, 5 g pro. Daily Value: 7% vit. A, 9% vit. C, 7% calcium, 6% iron.


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