Recipe from an Italian castle
If you ever want to stop by a storybook twelfth-century stone castle nestled in the side of a mountain in Northern Italy for a quick bite to eat, I’ve got just the place.
As my family and I wound down through the wild-flowered meadows of the Swiss Alps into an area of Italy not far from Austria known as the Sud Tyrol, my lifelong dream of sleeping in an ancient castle began to unfold before me. We passed through a village so tiny our car seemed to squeeze between the pastel stuccoed shops and trattorias.
The road twisted out of town, then up and down hills like a gentle roller coaster, passing through acres of neatly planted grape vines, miniature farm houses, brilliant gardens and occasional cows. Add to this view majestic mile-and-a-half high mountains known as The Dolomites and a castle called Schloss Korb, and there you have it – the stuff that dreams are made of.
The moment you step inside the massive arched door, you enter a time of gallant knights and rearing stallions, and history hangs so heavy in the air you can smell it. You look down at your feet to make sure you are really there and notice that your spanking white name-brand tennis shoes look oddly out of place against a 900-year-old stone floor. You are immediately drawn to the rough bouldered wall of the massive tower and you can’t help but place your hand on it, thinking that perhaps a handsome lord may have touched that very same spot.
And the Coke! As I sat on the terrace, drinking in the splendid view before me, I have never tasted a soft drink so utterly delicious in my entire life. In this castle state-of-mind, I surmised, Spam would have tasted like Chateaubriand, canned tuna like Lobster Thermidor and Mad Dog 20/20 like nectar from the gods. Imagine, then, how insanely delicious the broiled polenta blanketed with nutmeg-spinach and toasted pine nuts tasted that one starry night…
If you simply can’t squeeze in a visit to Schloss Korb right at the moment, do this: Pour a glass of good Italian merlot, put Pavarotti on the stereo and cook away, making sure your imagination is set in the medieval mode.
Broiled Parmesan Polenta with Nutmeg-Spinach, Pine Nuts and Cream
3 cups water
2 cups milk
1-1/2 teaspoons salt
1-1/4 cups corn meal, medium grind
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese
2 teaspoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter plus 1 tablespoon olive oil
1/2 cup pine nuts
1-1/2 lbs. fresh spinach
1/2 teaspoon freshly grated nutmeg (or canned)
1/2 cup heavy cream
Salt and ground white pepper to taste
Make polenta: In a large saucepan, place 2-1/2 cups of the water, 2 cups of milk and salt. Bring to a simmer. Meanwhile, place the corn meal in a small bowl and stir in the remaining 1/2 cup water. Slowly add the corn meal to the simmering milk mixture. Stir constantly until it thickens, about 4 minutes. Reduce the heat to low and simmer the mixture, uncovered, for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally, until very thick. Mix in the Parmesan cheese.
Oil a 9-1/2” x 5-1/2” loaf pan and fill with the warm polenta. Smooth out the top and cover with plastic wrap. Refrigerate 4 hours or overnight until firm.
Make topping: In a large skillet, melt butter and oil and cook pine nuts until golden brown, about 4 minutes. Remove to a small bowl and set aside.
Carefully wash spinach and remove stems. Coarsely chop and in same large skillet, cook until wilted, about 8 minutes. Stir in nutmeg and cream and simmer 5 minutes more. Season with salt and pepper.
To serve: Preheat oven to broil. Remove polenta from loaf pan and cut into 1/2” thick slices. Brush with a little olive oil on both sides and arrange on baking sheet. Broil until lightly golden. Arrange two slices on each dinner plate and top each with the warm spinach mixture. Sprinkle pine nuts on top.
Robin Benzle lives in Bay Village. For more recipes, visit robinbenzle.com.