Polenta with Chili Ragu

polenta with chipotle chili ragu by Linda Shiue
During football season, I listen with amazement as  my colleague Alison talks about the weekend’s game with the guys at work. “Could you believe that pass? I thought that [Name of Famous Football Player I Don’t Know] really screwed that one up.  I was really expecting [Name of Famous Football Team I Ought Really to Recognize] to win that one.  What a game!”
To look at her, all petite and feminine, you’d never think all that sports talk was coming from her lips.  At first, I thought she had one standard water cooler line that she’d pull out to be part of the conversation, but over time, I’ve realized she’s genuinely a huge sports fan.  Even in her skirts and heels, she’s one of the guys.  I am impressed.
Because for me, football holds no allure.  I have zero understanding of the teams, the rules, and why people are so into it.  I have memories of my brother trying to teach me how to throw a Nerf football when I was about 11, so I wouldn’t embarrass him completely at school. (I’m sure I still did.)  I can recall the way my fingers were supposed to curl to grip the ball.  That lesson did come in handy in a completely different context– when I learned how to nurse my first baby, and learned about the “football hold,” with the baby substituting for the ball.
Football fan Alison and her Texan husband, Eddie, have a TV room that’s made for hosting parties, so I’d better be prepared for the next one.  Don’t bother asking me about the game, though– I’m more likely to be hanging out in the kitchen.  I may not know about football, but I am comfortable at the stove.  While Eddie will likely be smoking some ribs in his outdoor smoker, I’m sure he’ll want some chili for their Superbowl party.  I’m ready.
I’ve got a good chili recipe, and I also know a bit about its history.  Chili, the official state dish of Texas, has more exotic roots than I realized.  It is Texan, as I thought, but was first created by immigrants from the Canary Islands, Spain.  These were the 400 or so families who founded the city of San Antonio, after being summoned by the king of Spain in 1719 to populate the then-province of Texas, along with families from Havana and Veracruz.  Their original recipe for chili, designed for long exploring expeditions, sounds convenient but not so appetizing:  dried beef, suet, dried chili peppers (usually chilipiquenes), and salt, pounded together and left to dry into bricks.  They packed these bricks to bring on their journeys and could then reconstitute them by boiling them in pots on the trail.
Unlike their new home on the frontier, the Canarians’ native islands didn’t have miles and miles of trails to explore, so it’s unlikely that these chili bricks were indigenous. Their chili was more likely a New World invention, and a good example of the place the Canary Islands holds in some little-known culinary history. The Canary Islands were Christopher Columbus’ main waystation for the two-way trade between the Old and New World.  According to a fascinating article by Colman Andrews, “Potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, corn, squash, chocolate and many other modern-day staples were brought east by Columbus and his successors; in turn, they introduced the New World to wheat, rice, sugar, chicken, lamb, beef and pork, as well as literally hundreds of varieties of fruits and vegetables, from the eggplant to the orange, the olive to the grape.”
It must have been a exciting time for food, with new flavors for both conquistadors and conquered.  There are also parallels in the cuisine of Columbus’ Italy and the otherwise culturally distinct Canary Islanders.  The traditional starch base of the Canary Island diet is called gofio, which generically refers to toasted grains that are eaten in various forms, including a corn-based porridge very similar to Italian polenta.  As with the chili bricks the Canarians developed in San Antonio, gofio was prepared traditionally as a portable meal.  This is described in fascinating detail in an 1887 edition of The Popular Science Monthly:
“The Canarian laborer, if alone, takes some gofio in a bag made of the stomach of a kid… When the hour for the simple meal has arrived, the bag is extracted from some pocket, or, likely enough, from the girdle, and putting a little water into it, after being well shaken, the meal is ready. Only enough water is added to make it sufficiently consistent to be readily taken in the hand, from which it is invariably eaten.”
This simple efficiency was described in contrast to the labor and time intensive meals of Italian laborers at the time: “As the mid-day hour approached, one of a gang of ten or twelve men would step aside and prepare the dinner. It nearly always consisted of polenta… It took the best part of an hour to prepare it, and there was also the trouble of kettles, fires, providing wood…”
To evoke this interesting bit of history, where Christopher Columbus sailed from Italy, met the Canary Islanders and introduced the New and Old Worlds, why not enjoy a variation on the classic Texan pairing of chili and cornbread?  In this culinary history-inspired version of the Italian dish of polenta with ragu, I’ve topped a bowl of creamy and smooth polenta with a smoky chipotle chili.
*     *     *
Canary Island Polenta with San Antonio Chipotle Chili Ragu
Texans may protest this healthy version of chili, to which I say, give it a chance!  I use turkey instead of beef and add a lot of vegetables and beans for taste, texture, color and nutrition.  The slow burn of the cayenne and the smokiness of the chipotle are a nice contrast to the creamy smoothness of the polenta.

Serves: 8
Chipotle Bean and Turkey Chili
Ingredients
1 Tbsp canola or olive oil
1 medium onion, diced
1 red bell pepper, diced
2 carrots, diced
2 tsp ground cumin
1 pound lean ground turkey
2 15 oz cans diced fire-roasted tomatoes
2 cups water
3 chipotle chiles in adobo sauce, minced
2 tablespoons adobo sauce from chipotle chiles in adobo
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp cayenne
3 15.5 oz cans of beans, rinsed and drained (any combination you like of black, kidney, pinto, etc)
salt and black pepper to taste
Technique
1.  Heat oil in a large pot over medium heat.
2.  Add vegetables, and stir and fry until soft, about 10 minutes.
3.  Add cumin and stir well to combine.
4.  Add ground turkey, and increase to high heat, and cook until meat is well cooked.
5.  Add in tomatoes, water, chipotle and adobo sauce, oregano and cayenne.  Reduce heat back to medium, and cook for 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.
6.  Add beans and cook for another 20-30 minutes.
7.  Add salt and pepper to taste.
Creamy Polenta
Ingredients
4 cups chicken stock or water
4 cups heavy cream
2 cups yellow polenta or cornmeal
4 tablespoons unsalted butter
Garnishes: 1 cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or cheddar cheese, a handful of minced fresh Italian parsley, minced onion
Technique
1.  Pour stock or water and cream into a saucepan and bring to a boil over medium heat.
2.  Pour in polenta and whisk briskly to combine and prevent clumping.  Reduce heat to low and continue to whisk constantly for about 10 minutes, until you have a thick porridge.
3.  Add butter and stir until melted.
To Serve
1.  Spoon a mound of polenta into the bottom of each bowl.
2.  Top with chili.
3.  Garnish with grated cheese, minced Italian parsley, and minced onion.
© 2011 Linda Shiue
A version of this was published on Salon on January 31, 2011.
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