poor man’s polenta
Born in 1943 in Borgo San Lorenzo, Tebaldo Lorini is a writer and folklorist who researches gastronomic traditions of the Mugello. His cookbooks and the recipes therein are the fruit of his conversations with locals throughout our region, and as such represent an invaluable record of living memory.
Last year Lorini published Ricette Proibite: Rane, Asini, Rondinotti, Gatti e Tartarughe nella Tradizione Alimentare, or ‘Prohibited Recipes: Frogs, Donkeys, Swallows, Cats, and Turtles in Food Tradition.’ Not surprisingly, controversy soon followed, in particular from animal rights activists, but not only. With its recipes for oven-baked stork, crow ragù, cat stew, swan with orange sauce, grilled fox and more, Ricette Proibite stirred debate and roused emotions among a broad array of folks. To the accusations of sharing ‘unthinkable’ and ‘disgusting’ recipes, Lorini said: ‘Who said certain animals can be eaten and others not? Laws are different from country to country, as are all customs, histories and traditions. Tastes change over time. Today some recipes are the classic Sunday lunch, while others cannot even be named.’ In Lorini’s defense, some noted that many of these ‘unthinkable’ recipes were born out of the extreme hunger experienced during the war years, a time when other ‘acceptable’ forms of meat were scarce.
Leaving that thorny debate aside, today I am making a far less controversial recipe of Lorini’s, from his 1985 book Mugello in Cucina: Storie, Prodotti, Tradizioni, Ricette. In this work, Lorini explores the eating habits of ancient peoples up through the 20th century and reveals some local recipes of the recent past that few today would recognize, let alone serve. According to Lorini, a sauce made from finely minced pancetta cooked in fresh garlic and red vinegar, la pancetta all’aceto, was used primarily by the charcoal makers of the Apennine Mountains (formerly one of the principle industries of my town, Grezzano) to flavor polenta. A distant cousin of sauces like carbonara and bagna cauda, pancetta all’aceto sauce should be served very hot. You can serve this as pictured above with creamy polenta or as below, with slices of crunchy grilled polenta.
750 ml (3 cups) water, or 1 liter (4 cups) if you want a creamier, much less dense polenta
185 grams (1 & ½ cups) polenta
100 grams (½ cup circa) of cubed pancetta
2 large garlic cloves
4 Tbls red wine vinegar
2 Tbls olive oil
1 Tbls butter
salt & pepper
You need a large-ish sauce pan for the polenta and a medium-sized shallow pan for the sauce. The polenta and the sauce should be prepared simultanously.
Set the water to boil.
If you are working with a whole piece of pancetta, slice it into ¼-inch-thick slices then into small cubes until you have about ½ cup. Lorini’s recipe says to mince the pancetta, which is a challenge, so I settled for small cubes. Peel and mince the garlic and set aside. If you prefer a more delicate garlic taste, leave the peeled cloves whole.
When the water is boiling, add 2 teaspoons of salt. Now slowly pour in the polenta, whisking continuously. Lower the heat and cook for approximately 10-12 minutes, or until the polenta is really smooth. Turn the heat off, add the butter, stir well and cover to keep warm.
Meanwhile heat the olive oil on high in the other pan and add the pancetta and garlic. Lower the heat and stir occasionally. After 2 or 3 minutes add a pinch of salt and pepper and add the vinegar. Cook for another 5 minutes or until the pancetta is rosy in color and a sauce has formed in the pan.
Transfer the polenta to a serving dish and make a small well in the middle. Pour the pancetta and every last drop of the juice over the polenta. This is a cucina povera dish, after all. Do not even think of counting calories or fat grams or any such nonsense. Serve very hot.
poor man’s polenta (grilled)