Italian Rice, Polenta and Gnocchi Recipes
Italy’s culinary history is primarily one of peasant fare. While other countries were developing rich sauces and elaborate pastries, Italian food was hearty, filling and cheap. This may not apply to every one of the twenty regions of Italy today, but for the most part, it is still true.
The most inexpensive dishes tend to be starchy foods. Italy and pasta are nearly synonymous to most foreigners, but pasta only dominates Italian food in Southern Italy. Northern Italians prefer to make gnocchi, polenta and risotto recipes. These humble starches may be cooked with inexpensive ingredients, but Italian cooks manage to transform them into elegant meals with locally made cheeses, wild mushrooms and fresh seafood.
What is polenta? Polenta recipes are prepared with coarsely ground cornmeal from either white or yellow corn. It is cooked in a pot, generally with water, but can be prepared with broth or milk for specific dishes. Traditional Italian polenta recipes require the cooking cereal to be constantly stirred as it thickens to prevent lumping. Recently, quick cooking and ready made, shelf stable versions have also become available.
Depending on the meal, polenta can be served in many ways. A easy, light meal might only be garnished with some salt preserved fish. For a large Italian mid-day supper, polenta recipes are served on a platter family style topped with a hearty ragu or other meat sauce.
Leftover polenta is generally poured into pans and chilled. As the cereal chills, it becomes firm and can be used in a variety of other polenta recipes. After turning out of the pan, it can be sliced and used as a bread replacement, in a layered casserole or even deep fried.
What is risotto? In northern Italy, a short grained cultivar of rice has been bred to keep its shape after extended simmering and stirring in risotto recipes. The starches are released slowly into the cooking liquid, creating a creamy, smooth sauce without the addition of oils. After cooking until the rice is tender, the final dish is enriched with locally made cheeses and butter. Cooking risotto in a pressure cooker is less traditional, but makes preparing risotto quick and nearly effortless.
Risotto is generally served by itself as a first course. It may be flavored simply with local cheeses or locally gathered wild mushrooms. On the other hand, it can be elevated to glorious heights with fresh lobsters and baby octopus. Other Italian risotto recipes include the saffron perfumed risotto alla milanese, often served with ossobuco alla milanese, or veal shanks cooked Milan style.
Other risotto recipes include risotto al nero di seppia, a seafood risotto colored with black cuttlefish ink, and the famous risi e bisi. “Rice and peas” as it translates, is a thick soup made with fresh green peas, rice and pancetta. Arancini di Riso are hand held treats made by stuffing balls of cooled risotto with cheese and peas. These croquettes are then dredged in dry bread crumbs and then fried until the breading is golden and the cheese melted and served with a fresh tomato sauce.
Sweet risotto recipes are popular, also. Chocolate risotto is served either warm or chilled and can be garnished with slabs of chocolate. Risotto cooked with sweetened milk, rather than broth, is perfect to be topped with fresh fruit poached in wine with sugar and spices.
What is gnocchi? Gnocchi are Italian hand shaped dumplings. Most gnocchi recipes use mashed potatoes with egg yolks and wheat flour. They are simmered in water until they roll over and float to the surface of the cooking water. These airy dumplings are spectacular gently tossed with a variety of gnocchi sauce recipes. Some of the more common choices include pesto and tomato sauces.
Variations on gnocchi recipes may use semolina, plain wheat flour, cheese or bread crumbs in the dough. Ricotta gnocchi are especially simple and quick to prepare. Names for gnocchi vary depending on the region in which they are being made. In Tuscany, malfatti are made with ricotta, spinach and flour dough. These are served with gnocchi sauce recipes such as a basic red sauce or a decadent topping of browned butter flavored with fresh sage leaves.
Strangolapreti are gnocchi made from stale bread and spinach. These noodles are affectionately referred to as ‘priest stranglers’. This odd name refers to a priest who enjoyed eating these dumplings that he ate them too quickly and choked to death. These dumplings can be served simply with butter and grated cheese. More complex gnocchi sauce recipes include the long simmered traditional Neopolitan Ragu or a creamy bechamel with locally harvested wild mushrooms.
Even though Italy’s recipes are based on centuries of farmers and peasants trying to make do with little, modern Italian cooks have transformed these cheap starches to gourmet food. Polenta, gnocchi and risotto recipes are perfect examples of this country’s ability to create elegant dishes from anything.