Sunday, November 14, 2010

Simmering at the Savoy

I'm always reduced to drooling by the weekly newsletters that I get from Jim Dixon of RealGoodFood. A combination of memoir, recipe and the week's offerings of his once-a-week-or-so "pop-up" store at Activspace, he always comes up with something that makes me want to run into the kitchen and start cooking.

For many years my booth at the Portland Farmers Market was next to Fred Carlo’s. I’ve known Fred for a long time, and I didn’t mind the savory aroma of frying onions, peppers and pork that clung to me after the market was over. During the colder months we’d share whatever we’d brought to “sweeten” our coffee, and we’d swap stories about business, Italy and the things we loved to eat.

I don’t remember exactly when Fred told me about one of the dishes his grandmother made, but it’s always been stuck in my head. He described how she’d add Savoy cabbage to a pot of beans, then pour in polenta and let it simmer together to form a thick, chunky stew. It was one of his favorite things. So last week at the market, when I saw the dried borlotti beans at Viridian Farms and the bright green, wrinkled leaves of Savoy cabbage at Spring Hill Farm, I knew it was time to make Fred’s grandmother’s beans.

Borlotti Beans, Savoy Cabbage, Polenta

Borlotti beans are also called cranberry beans, and it’s worth it to seek the best, either from Viridian Farms or Ayers Creek Farm. Bob’s Red Mill sells packaged cranberry beans, and in a pinch you could substitute pintos. Good polenta makes a huge difference, too, and Ayers Creek is the best. If you can’t get to the Hillsdale Farmers Market early on a Sunday when they actually have some, Anson Mills mail order might the next best.

Cook a half pound beans separately using my no-soak oven approach. Combine the beans with about three times as much water, a big pinch of sea salt, and a healthy glug of extra virgin olive oil. Cook in the oven at 250° until tender, usually at least a couple of hours. Add more water if the top of the beans are dry. Do this a day or two ahead and store in the refrigerator.

I decided to cook the polenta separately. Put a cup of polenta into a saucepan, then stir in 3 cups of cold water; add some salt. Heat slowly, stirring occasionally and scraping the bottom of the pan. Cook on very low heat for about 45 minutes, adding a little hot water if it gets too thick (I usually add about a half cup over the last 20 minutes or so).

Dice about a half pound of pancetta (or another fatty cured pork product; bacon, ham, proscuitto) and cook for about 10 minutes in extra virgin. Add a diced onion, cook for about 5 more minutes, and add a couple of diced garlic cloves. Let that cook while you chop half a head of Savoy cabbage (use plain green cabbage if you can’t find Savoy). Toss in the cabbage and cook uncovered for 10 minutes or so, then add the beans and simmer for another 15 minutes.

If you want to cook the polenta with the beans and cabbage, add it to the pot after the cabbage, but use less (maybe half a cup) and make sure there’s enough liquid from the beans (add a little water if necessary). Simmer everything for at least 40 minutes, stirring often.

Spoon the beans and cabbage over the polenta, drizzle with good extra virgin olive oil and sprinkle with flor de sal.

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