Wheat in the South, Rice in the North; Polenta if you Have To.
Two staple crops seems to be enough for most countries. Four is a little excessive. Italy produces large quantities of rice, wheat, maize and potatoes. It has developed things to do with potatoes and maize but these can be happily ignored by almost everyone, Italian and non-Italian. Gnocchi and polenta are not the things I would order in an Italian restaurant. They are not things I would order in any restaurant. I’m sure they can be very good but why have them when you can have any of the amazing dishes that the Italians make with either wheat or rice. Why use potatoes to make them when other cultures have come up with far better uses for maize and potatoes. Would you like pizza or something stodgy and filling? Would you like risotto or potato dumplings?
I’m sure they can be special. I just haven’t got round to balancing up numerous disappointments with the polenta and gnocchi over the years. It isn’t just me. Italians don’t much care for them much either. In fact, beyond the sort of people who have been seduced by their rather special names, they are not on many people’s choice of food from the boot shaped country. Polenta is still associated with being eaten because there wasn’t anything else. All Italian food has some link with poverty; polenta was the bottom of the pile.
I don’t like it but I don’t care for much made from maize that isn’t eating the corn off the cob. Corn flakes fail to excite either my eating side or the treating side. Pop corn is horrible, grits are a mystery on this side of the Atlantic. They sound fun but are apparently a sort of porridge without the benefit of oats. The USA is by far the world’s biggest producer of corn. It is no surprise that the vast majority of it goes to feed livestock and a growing proportion of the rest is made into ethanol.
I like rice. I like all of the different types of rice I have ever eaten whether wild or cultivated, brown, black, white or scented. I like it long grain or short grain, Asian, Africa, American or European and even Australian. I like the speciality dishes that are made out of rice across the culinary world. I like the names. Polenta is a good name, but it doesn’t compare to kedgeree, paella, risotto, pilau, biryani. The different types of rice have equally wonderful names; basmati, arborio, carnoroli. In fact, in India alone there are twelve kinds of rice and that’s if you only count the types of rice from Kerala and then only count those beginning with K.
This week is as close to subsistence eating as we get. We hardly buy anything. Everything is out of the larder and everything is in the simple, quick and easy to make and very cheap. Under these conditions we invariably eat well. There is little correlation between how much you pay for a dish and how tasty it is. Sometimes you have to pay for strong flavours; venison, game and good olives. Much of the time the best flavours are among the cheaper ingredients; onions, lemons, tomatoes.
Spices used to cost a King’s ransom. Drake grew rich on plundered Spanish gold. Many another British adventurer grew richer on a hold full of cloves and pepper corns. Italian food, like all the food cultures of Western Europe had long love affairs with spices before casting off in favour of flavours of vegetables and herbs. Spices still play a part. Increasingly so as Eastern foods gain popularity. there is a definite renaissance in cumin, coriander, chilli and nutmegs.
Risotto is perhaps my favourite midweek dish. There can be little more relaxing than the making of it. throw some chopped onions into a goodly amount of oil in a wok and let them soften. This week I have peppers, T chooses red and yellow. They get added along with 250g of arborio rice. Once the rice has had chance to become coated and cook a little I add a good slosh of boiling water. This is a midweek dish and I’m not adding ladles of stock and cooking each down. A stock cube (chicken) gets crumbled in along with ground black pepper and a couple of tomatoes finely chopped. I keep the dish moving and as the water is absorbed I test the firmness of the rice and keep adding more water until the dish is creamy and delicious and the rice just nicely past al-dente. Shortly before completing the cooking I throw in some chopped celery. I like this to retain a strong crunch. The flavour, texture and way the vegetable mixes with parmesan, make celery an ideal extra ingredient.
We’re both hungry and serve ourselves healthy portions. Grate parmesan over the top and enjoy.
There is enough left over for school lunches. T microwaves hers, I have it cold. It would be hard to say which is best. This is a meal to come home to.
T is poorly this week. She’s happy with tinned soups and toast. This suits me. I’m on my last week of working for other people. I’m in a celebratory mood each night and either treat myself to a steak, a risotto or a new tie each evening. The steak I enjoy with chips and two fried eggs. Chips; now, that’s a way to prepare potatoes!
Also on the treat list is ice cream. It has been such foul weather. Up in Derbyshire we have merely had endless fairly awful weather. It has been depressing in its own way, but nothing compared to the poor folk in Somerset, the South West and the Welsh coast. I haven’t fancied ice cream too often until Wednesday when I have a need to find someway of celebrating completing my third last day of teaching. There is no better way of having ice cream than in a cone. Incidentally, it is the one foodstuff that Italian etiquette will allow you to eat standing up.
On Tuesday I succumb to the temptation of a can of warming soup. I choose Heinz Mulligatawny. Enjoyable if hardly memorable. I’m reading the James Herriot books and tinned soup seems somehow fitting. Yes, that is a kindle you see. I prefer paper books but have overcome my aversion to tablet technology.
Tuesday also sees me giving myself a choice for my packed lunch. I make two cheese sandwiches with the excellent bread from The Oven Door. It was bought on Saturday but makes perfectly good sandwiches three days later. I bake better bread but it can’t match this feature. One sandwich gets Pat’s Green Tomato Chutney (my second jar) and the other gets my beetroot chutney. It is a close run contest between two very enjoyable sandwiches.
Friday is my last day as a teacher. I did my first day 28 years ago. I think that is probably enough. It is an enjoyable end to an enjoyable week. the Children are wonderful. We continue proper lesson right through to the end but I am overwhelmed by cards, treats and presents. I share many of them out with the classes but still bring home two carrier bags. I’ve only been there three months!
Friday is also the day we say goodbye to a favourite old mug. This fellow came from Scarborough, has gone on many a picnic and even went round Ireland with me, strapped to the back of a bicycle. It seems an appropriate day to find a crack in it.
I want to start my new life as I mean to continue. I sleep 10 hours and have a breakfast of poached haddock and eggs on a bed of spinach, served on slices of toast. If the new life continues as it began, I think I’m going to enjoy it very much indeed.