from A Passion for Piedmont by Matt Kramer
Little Known Facts About the Remote Region
and Its Rich Culinary Traditions.
The cuisine of Piedmont is among Italy's most varied. The Langhe district, the geographic and gastronomic heartland of the region, boasts the greatest cooks, the finest wines, and the world's best white truffles. In southeastern Piedmont, the food is lighter, more like the vegetarian cuisine of adjoining Liguria. In the mountains, robust and hearty dishes, such as fonduta (Piedmontese fondue) and polenta predominate.
The Piedmontese have been influenced by their neighbors, the French, whose sense of refinement and devotion to rich foods they share. However, unlike in France, the greatest chefs in Piedmont are women.
Just about everyone in Piedmont has a passion for white truffles. During the fall, when they are abundant, truffles appear atop a seemingly endless variety of dishes. The method of serving is to shave the truffles thinly so that they drift like snowflakes onto the plate.
Antipasti are a rite, bordering on a frenzy, in the region. Home cooks usually serve at least three, and restaurants often pile up six to eight. Among the most popular are individual flans called sformati. Most sformati, like Potato Flan or Red Pepper Flan, have a white sauce base; the modern variation, employed in making Cabbage Flan, substitutes cream.
The flat Po River Valley in the middle of Piedmont, which lies underwater for part of the year, is one of the primary rice-producing areas of Europe. It is the home of Arborio rice, as well as the lesser known, but highly prized Carnaroli rice. Piedmontese varieties of rice were distinctive enough even 200 years ago that Thomas Jefferson, seeking to improve the rice production of South Carolina, successfully smuggled unmilled samples out of the country, a crime then punishable by death.
You can skip the butter and initially "toast" the raw grains of rice for a risotto—but don't even think about skipping the Parmesan cheese on top, preferably Parmigiano-Reggiano. And it's not really necessary to stir nonstop when making risotto.
Piedmont is known for its tarjarin (tagliatelle), a delicate pasta made from dough containing up to 40 egg yolks per kilogram. According to the Piedmontese, no tarjarin can be too rich or too thin.
Polenta requires involvement and anticipation. The ritual of slowly immersing cornmeal into boiling water elevates polenta, while baking or pressure-cooking reduces the dish to mere cornmeal mush.
(Sweet Cornmeal Cake)
When you taste this cake for the first time, your initial reaction is, "Cornmeal, how interesting."' But what surprises is how readily you return for a second and third bite, as the flavor is insinuating. The addition of lightly sweetened whipped cream, by the way, is a necessity. It adds richness and a contrasting velvety texture to the reserved dryness of the cake. It also looks good atop the sunny yellow crust.
Worth Noting: It is essential that the cornmeal is very finely ground. Most cornmeals are coarsely ground. This can be effectively modified by placing coarsely ground cornmeal in a food processor and processing until a very fine, sandlike consistency is achieved.
makes 6 servings
3/4 cup milk
2 tablespoons dry yeast
1 cup fine-ground cornmeal
1-1/2 cups all-purpose flour
1 cup sugar, plus extra for sprinkling
2 large eggs, beaten
Grated zest of 1 lemon
Generously butter an 8-inch round cake pan. Set aside.
In a large mixing bowl, whisk together the milk and yeast. Gradually whisk in the cornmeal, flour, sugar, eggs, and lemon zest. Whisk until the ingredients are well blended.
Turn the batter into the prepared pan. Let rest for 30 minutes.
Preheat the oven to 350F.
Sprinkle the top of the batter generously with sugar. Bake for 40 minutes until browned. Let the cake cool completely, then turn it out of the pan. Serve with lightly sweetened whipped cream.
A Passion for Piedmont
by Matt Kramer
William Morrow & Co., $28.00/hardcover
336 pages, 1997
Recipes and photos reprinted by permission.
Visit Italy page.
This page originally published as a Global Gourmet Today column in 1998.
Copyright © 2007, Kate Heyhoe. All rights reserved.
This page modified January 2007
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