Cookbook Tester: Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy


Lidia Cooks From the Heart of Italy: A Feast of 175 Regional Recipes, due for release on October 20th, is Lidia Bastianich’s sixth cookbook. This time, the prolific chef and author winds her way through the lesser-known parts of Italy–leaving aside, for example, Tuscany and Puglia–offering regional recipes from Trentino-Alto Adige, Lombardy, Liguria, Le Marche, and Molise, among others.

Bastianich’s cookbooks are always expert, cared-for creations, and this one is no different. It’s fun to read through the dishes and discover, for instance, that the food of Trentino-Alto Adige shares many flavors with neighboring Austria–like dumplings with speck, whole-grain spaetzle, and roast chicken with beer. The book is dense with recipes, most of them earthy, peasant-food affairs. Particularly rewarding are the informative little interludes about each region, written by Tanya Bastianich Manuali, Lidia’s daughter, and including ephemera like where to shop for candy-coated almonds in Abruzzo.

We tried out the recipe for polenta with white beans and black kale, which made for a warming, hearty fall supper.

Polenta with White Beans and Black Kale
Yield: 6 servings
Recipe from Lidia Cooks from the Heart of Italy
Lidia writes: This terrific dish brings into the bowl three essential Italian foods: polenta, cannellini, and the unique variety of kale called cavolo nero–one of my favorite vegetables. The customary green in Tuscan ribollita, cavolo nero has an earthy, mouth-filling flavor, as if cabbage, broccoli, chickory, and spinach were all packed into one leaf. Fortunately, this delicious and healthful vegetable is now being grown and sold in this country under a variety of names, including lacinata, or dinosaur kale (for the texture of the leaves), and black kale (for their dark hue). In this recipe, cavolo nero is braised with bacon and cannellini and served atop hot polenta. But you can just braise it with bacon, following the same basic procedure, and serve it as a delicious side dish, or enjoy it in crusty bread as a great sandwich filling.

For the beans:
1/2 pound dried cannellini beans, rinsed and soaked overnight
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
For the polenta:
5 cups cold water
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
2 bay leaves, preferably fresh
1 cup yellow polenta, medium grind
For the greens:
5 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
8 ounces slab bacon, cut into 1/2-inch lardoons
1 1/2 pounds cavolo nero (black kale), tough stems removed, leaves cut into 2-inch shreds
1 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt
8 ounces finely shredded fontina, from Valle d’Aosta (or Italian Fontal)

To cook the beans: Drain the soaked beans and put them in the pot with fresh cold water covering them by an inch or so; add the bay leaves and olive oil. Bring to a boil, lower the heat to keep the liquid simmering steadily, and cook, partially covered, about 40 minutes or until the beans are just cooked through, but not mushy. Turn off the heat, stir in 1/2 teaspoon salt, and let the beans cool for a while in the pot, absorbing some of the cooking liquid.

To cook the polenta: Pour the water and olive oil into a heavy pot, drop in the salt and bay leaves, and bring to a boil. Pick up the polenta by handfuls, and let it rain into the water through your fingers, whisking steadily with a sturdy wire whisk, until it is all incorporated. Return the polenta to a boil over medium heat, still whisking. When big bubbles start bursting, lower the heat to keep the polenta perking, and set the cover ajar on the pot. Stir frequently with the whisk or wooden spoon, scraping the bottom and sides of the pot as the cereal thickens. Cook for about 25 minutes or until the polenta is glossy and pulls away from the sides as you stir; for this dish it should be soft, not too firm. Turn off the heat and cover the pot to keep the polenta hot.

To cook the kale: Pour 2 tablespoons of olive oil into the skillet, set it over medium heat, and scatter in the bacon. Cook, stirring occasionally, as the bacon sizzles and renders most of its fat, 4 or 5 minutes. Pile the shredded kale in the pan, sprinkle the salt over it, put on the cover, and cook, tossing the kale a couple of times, until the shreds have wilted, about 5 minutes.

Uncover the skillet, and stir in the cooked cannellini, along with about a cup (not all) of the bean cooking liquid and the remaining 3 tablespoons olive oil. Bring to a simmer and cook, stirring often, for 5 minutes or more, until the kale is tender. Stir in more bean liquid as needed to keep the greens and beans from drying.

When the kale and beans are ready, stir half of the shredded fontina into the hot polenta. Spoon portions of polenta into warm shallow bowls, then top each with the kale and beans and a sprinkling of fontina. Serve right away, while very hot.