Felice anno nuovo! Happy New Year!
If your family is anything like mine, the past two weeks have been filled with food, wine and plenty of feasting! On a cold evening between Christmas and New Year’s, my father had a spur-of-the-moment hankering for “polenta alla spianatora” (or “spianatoia,” a wooden pastry or dough-making board). My three young children gaped in awe as their Nonno poured soft-cooked polenta in a thin, even layer directly onto a wooden board positioned in the center of the table and then topped it with a meaty slow-cooked sugo.
As we served ourselves to helpings of polenta, my father talked about partaking in this rustic, communal meal during his youth. When my dad was a kid in rural Abruzzo, the polenta was poured not on a wooden board or plank, but rather, directly on the wooden dining table at the home of his grandparents, Nonna Nunziata e Nonno Roberto. Each of the grandchildren was given a fork – no dishes – and instructed to dig into the polenta that was in front of him or her. The cousins would have polenta races, carving out paths that led to the sausage and braised pork sparsely scattered around the center. These rare, precious bits of meat were a valuable prize to the children of this poor mountain village.
The polenta conversation sparked the considerable curiosity of my eight-year old son who proceeded to grill my father about his life in Abruzzo as a child. Stories of walking along the village streets with his pet lamb trailing behind him (our family’s very own, “Gino Had a Little Lamb”) led to reminiscences about my parents’ respective sea voyages from Italy to the USA in the 1960s and finally to tales of their escapades as newly arrived immigrants in New York.
Yes, our dinner was tasty and comforting . However, the real magic of that dinner was not in the food that we ate, but rather, in my father’s misty-eyed nostalgia, my son’s wide-eyed enthusiasm and the sheer power of these food memories over the three generations seated at the table.
Wishing you a year filled with good food and all of the joy that it brings!
POLENTA ALLA SPIANATORA
Recipe by Majella Home Cooking©
Since we prepared this dish “all’improvviso,” the photos don’t exactly reflect the recipe. We didn’t have the quantity or both types of meat on hand that the recipe calls for. This is a really unique communal dining experience to share with family and close friends so it’s worth the effort to prepare a slow-simmered sugo.
For the Sugo (sauce):
- 2 pounds pork neck bones
- 2 lbs Italian sausages
- Freshly ground black pepper
- 4 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
- 4 cloves garlic
- 1 medium onion, cut in half
- 2 tablespoons tomato paste
- 2 (32-ounce) cans whole peeled tomatoes, passed through a food mill, or crushed tomatoes
- 1 medium carrot, cut in half crosswise
- 1 branch basil leaves
To make the sugo, generously season the pork bones with salt and pepper. Into a wide skillet, pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set over medium heat. When the oil is shimmering, add the pork bones and brown for about 6 minutes on each side. Remove to a bowl. Next, add the sausages to the skillet and brown for about 5 minutes on each side
To a large sauce pot, add the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil and set over medium heat. Add the garlic cloves and onion halves and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes, until they are just beginning to color. Add the tomato paste and stir around the bottom of the pot until sizzling, about 1 minute. Add the tomatoes, carrot, and basil to the pot, raise the heat to high and bring to a boil. Add the browned pork bones and any accumulated juices, as well as the sausages, to the pot, adjust the heat so that the sauce remains at a steady and gentle simmer and cook for an hour, stirring occasionally.
Stir in 1 teaspoon of salt and several grindings of black pepper continue to cook for 30 minutes longer or until the sauce is thick and the flavors have melded together. Remove and discard the onion and garlic cloves and remove the meat to a bowl. Skim any excess fat from the surface of the sauce and season with salt and pepper to taste. Keep the sauce and meat warm until serving time.
For the Polenta:
- 8 cups water or low sodium chicken broth (or a combination of the two)
- 2 teaspoons salt
- 4 cups yellow imported Italian polenta (I usually buy the brands, La Grande Ruota or Moretti fioretto polenta)