copyright © 2006
in The Guardian
25 November 2006
I met a man who had grown up in France, where
he had learned to cook soufflés as a child. As a young
man he casually cooked them for friends. Gradually, however,
this perfectionist had found that his soufflés had got
worse and worse. He was, he said, going to have to go back and
relearn the procedures.
We all get stuck in our ways, or need some
new impulse in cooking. I make no claim to originality in what
follows, which is an account of recent researches in my autumn
kitchen. Indeed, as you will see, the dishes in question appear
to be related to classics of their kind. I cooked them first,
then I researched them - hardly a defensible procedure. But
they were all new to me.
What set the ball rolling was a half-kilo bag
of Carluccio's quick polenta, bought in Bicester Village (our
local destination designer outlet) and prepared according to
the instructions on the bag, with butter and some Parmesan worked
in, and turned out into a great rectangular dish, in anticipation
of visitors. The slices cut off this slab for lunch made little
impact on the volume of the whole, and I realised afterwards
that I was going to face a few polenta-filled days, and I might
as well make them interesting.
The reason why I do not normally cook polenta
is that the correct procedure seems a drag, while the instant
version is generally described by the experts as an inferior
product. But polenta - or maize meal, "corn-meal"
in the American kitchen - is a delicious autumnal product, redolent
of the New World and of Mexico in particular. And this variety
seemed fine enough to me.
An article by Charles Elliott in the autumn
issue of Hortus, the thinker's garden quarterly, tells us that
there is no wild ancestor of maize extant. The plant, which
is found exclusively in cultivation, fails to drop its seeds,
and, for this reason and others, human beings are needed to
plant it and to select better strains as they occur. Throughout
the 20th century there has been an acrimonious scientific debate
about the origins of maize, which appears to be still unsolved.
The article also informs us that the soft, primitive covering
on a maize kernel, the bit that gets stuck between your teeth
when you eat corn on the cob, is correctly called the glume.
On the first evening, I cut a slice for myself
(happening to be alone), laid it in an ovenproof dish, covered
it with slices of Roquefort and placed it in the oven for 10
minutes. The result was a surprise: the white part of the Roquefort
melted as anticipated, leaving the blue veins with their powdery
mould stranded on top, perfectly keeping their form.
This is a Milanese or north Italian dish, and
the next night I improved on it, using a more idiomatic cheese,
Gorgonzola, and heating the polenta slice first, before applying
the cheese covering. If I had taken another cheese, Fontina,
and cut it and the polenta into small slices, and stacked them
in the manner of a row of toppled dominoes, and put them under
the grill, I would have had (according to sources later consulted)
a dish called Concia, beloved in the Val d'Aosta.
Concia is an interesting word, to do with the
tanning industry, that seems in this context to mean a mess
or an arrangement. An "acconciatura" is a hair-do.
But "Come sei conciato male!" means "Don't you
look a mess!" I suppose what one is constructing here is
a messy arrangement.
There was still more polenta to go. On the
third night I took a piece of fish, oiled it and placed it beside
a slice of polenta, and once again put the dish into a hot oven.
Then I washed a dessertspoonful of capers under the tap (they
were a mixture of salted and pickled capers) and chopped them
roughly on a board. These I heated in butter, quite a lot of
butter, whereupon they immediately began to make an interesting
sauce, which was finished with a capful of a good vinegar.
This sauce has nothing originally to do with
polenta, but it is sharp and salty and everything to do with
mutton or fish. It is an old English sauce, and this is how
Eliza Acton describes it in Modern Cookery (1858 edition): "Stir
into a third of a pint of good melted butter from three to four
dessertspoonsful of capers; add a little of the vinegar [she
means the vinegar they came in], and dish the sauce as soon
as it boils. Keep it stirred after the berries are added: part
of them may be minced and a little chilli vinegar substituted
for their own." The quantities here are enough for a small
joint of mutton. The mincing or chopping of the capers is well
worth the trivial effort involved.
This kind of caper sauce is indeed quick to
make, but while looking through my books I saw a reference to
a "creamy caper sauce" which set my thoughts in a
different direction. The next night, I repeated the recipe with
a different fish (it had been cod before, now it was salmon),
this time using only salted capers which I washed and stewed
in butter. Then, instead of vinegar, I added a generous dollop
of crème fraîche, allowing it to bubble just a
No doubt this too is a famous sauce. It's not
in any of my books. Nor is it the "creamy caper sauce"
of tradition, which is made with flour. At all events, I was
glad to add two quick caper sauces to my repertoire. The second
one turns out rather like a hot sauce tartare. Evidently I like
capers. Not everybody does. Those who do, however, are well
advised to add a few roughly chopped capers to scrambled eggs,
before cooking. The affinity between capers and eggs helps fool
the palate into thinking that the eggs in question are of extraordinarily
By now my polenta was exhausted. It could,
of course, have been cut into pieces and arranged in a dish
in a thick cheese sauce, to feed a large group. Or it could
have partnered a mushroom dish or a hare ragout. So much else
could have happened. But what I have described is what actually