Sometimes we cook just to feel not just Italian, but specifically like Sophia Loren. This includes a reflection on how the movies can have a lasting effect on our inner lives and our menu planning.
When I was twelve, I wanted to be a nun. I was sure it! I was transformed! I was going to the Belgian Congo to be a nursing nun!
I had been to the movies!
It was "A Nun's Story" starring Audrey Hepburn, who endured tuberculosis so beautifully under the intense gaze of Peter Finch, gliding plaintively through sexual tension so thick you could cut it with a knife!
I walked home from the theater, carefully avoiding my reflection in store fronts so I could retain the vision of my waiflike Audrey self, avoiding coming to terms with the gawky twelve year old sporting an unfortunate home perm and cat's eye glasses.
Inevitably, my calling all came to naught by the time I got home and shared my goal with my not unsympathetic mother. She pointed out that there are requirements that might have to be overcome. Nuns, as a rule, are Catholic, she said. Which we weren't. And nursing requires quite a bit more heave ho than batting besotted doctors away. I was disappointed, of course, but bravely moved on to other movies.
I sleighed beautifully through the Russian winter under the liquid gaze of Omar Sharif. I dazzled the king of Siam. I felt pretty, oh so pretty - pretty and witty and gay. I learned how to whistle. (Apparently you just put your lips together and blow - though whistling was a trick I never mastered). There were raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. And Italy! Luscious Italy! The first times I visited Italy were as Sophia Loren, sashaying down narrow cobbled streets oblivious to the many admirers strewn in my path.
But when the lights come up, we resume our lives just, but not quite, as we left them. We do retain a grain, a soupçon, of the people and places we have seen and been.
So when we get to a cliff - land's end, when we've run out of road, when we feel dinner time closing in and we just cannot face wringing another modicum of creativity out of a potato or a cup of rice, a shard of pasta, when the family has turned up its collective nose at quinoa, the time has come to take the plunge and tap into our subliminal Sophia.
It's time for polenta!
We do remember references to this stuff from those old Italian movies. We've seen it in specialty stores, vacuum packed in a tube. We have wondered. Our curiosity has been piqued. We're brave world travelers, after all - at least in the movies.
Well, the first thing I'll tell you is that buying prepared polenta is sort of silly because it is as easy to make as a mud pie, or hummus, which people have also been known to purchase, for heaven's sake.
We all have a bag of fine or medium corn meal in the pantry. It has been there since the dawn of time, or at least since the last time cornbread seemed like a good idea. Apparently desperation has never driven us to this extreme before.
We grab our tablet, Google "fine corn meal" and up pops Polenta in the same breath as "grits" - a tasteless blob of sloppy not much served everywhere when we travelled south - at least until we told them to stop that. Polenta, however, sounds vaguely exotic - definitely foreign. And it looks quick and easy. They refer to it as "comfort food" and mention Italy. We remember visiting Italy in those darkened theaters. Surely worth a try... It couldn't be as disasterous as our first stab at quinoa. (Side note on quinoa: When they say to wash it thoroughly, they aren't kidding. Apparently it is coated with something that really has got to be washed off!)
Back to polenta.
We peruse some recipes. There are some common characteristics.
Boil some water.
Turn the heat to low.
Add about 1/4 as much fine or medium stone ground corn meal. (Let's avoid 'instant' since most instant things are a corner that we don't want to cut.)
Add some salt, but not too much, since we will be tossing in some freshly grated parmesan cheese. In goes a blob of butter. I always add a sprinkle of hot pepper flakes for that lovely kick in the pants.
Whisk away! If it is too dry, add a bit more hot water. If it is too wet, wait a minute before you take action. It will thicken. Give it time.
Fuss over it for a little while longer. Turn off the heat. Let it sit for a bit prodding occasionally to contemplate the consistency.
Well done! Taste a spoonful. Toss in a handful of freshly grated Parmesan cheese? Maybe another. Why not? Another bite, and time softens. Drizzle with your best olive oil. You feel transported into one of those Fellini movies that you bravely pretended to understand back in your university days. You feel the urge to fling a tea towel over your shoulder and slide your weight onto one hip. One more taste and you will be Sophia Loren, all pouty lips and smokey eyes and chiseled cheekbones, gazing through an open window at Marcello Mastroianni who is gazing back. And in that moment, you understand to the bottom of your beating Italian heart, that it doesn't really matter whether your family turns up its collective nose at Polenta. You will make it again and again.
Polenta is a tasty concoction that goes well with just about anything. A few meatballs, or a steak, sliced pork, ham. A tomatoey ragu is nice. Some greens. Wilted spinach...
See you at the movies!