As we slide into 2017, it feels like the whole world is reeling. From extreme weather to an even more extreme cultural climate, we’re taking our temperature and finding disease all around us. Back and forth from our California home to our adopted refuge in Puglia, we’re facing the future and trying to stay focused on what matters most.
So we are hunkering down, taking care of our family and ourselves and reaching out to old and new friends in an effort to reaffirm the values we hold closest to our hearts. With kindness, civility and a yearning to connect, we’re trying to find a way to live in the world without succumbing to despair about what’s next. Simple pleasures define our lives these days: the symphony of frogs at twilight, a shared laugh with a neighbor and a steamy bowl of soup seem to be just enough right now.
We’re continuing to focus on food and the people who make it, both in the old world and the new. Our intimate, food and wine-focused tours in Puglia are bringing people closer to a contemporary landscape in southern Italy that still reveres deeply-held traditions. And introducing our guests to our oldest friends and colleagues in Puglia’s food and wine world reaffirms our faith in the future, showing us how to make peace with modernity without foregoing the past.
Our 2017 tour line-up is complete. We’ve organized a new wine-centric experience with a young sommelier as our partner this fall; we’ve also scheduled a private tour with confirmed Italophiles who haven’t spent time in Puglia yet. And I’m working on a food and wine guide to Puglia designed to illuminate the authentic, genuine culinary highlights of a place we have loved for decades. I’ll share more about this project soon.
In the meantime, we cook. Every single day. Like Michael Pollan, I’ve come to think that “. . . cooking is a political act.” Transforming raw, unadulterated ingredients into a cooked meal deepens our connection to our families and our communities. The more we distance ourselves from our food, the easier it is to see food as just another commodity to be manipulated for profit at our expense.
Cooking at home doesn’t need to be overwhelmingly time-consuming, nor does it need to be complicated. And the more you cook, the easier and more satisfying it becomes. Whether you’re cooking for one or many, there are few ways to spend your time that offer more pleasure, especially when you encourage others to help. If you don’t know how, Pollan has some terrific ideas. Just jump in and savor the moments you spend in the kitchen.
Here is an easy, deeply satisfying fall and winter dish from northeastern Italy that practically cooks itself. I learned how to make it from an Italian roommate in Florence years ago. In thebest expression of a traditional culinary hand-me-down ethic, she learned it from an old boyfriend’s mother. Paired with a salad of winter greens or some roasted vegetables, it’s all you need. Comfortable and comforting, this one-pot meal can help soothe your soul, even in troubled times like ours.
Costine di Maiale al Brodo di Polenta—Pork Chops in Polenta Broth
6 Tbsp. unsalted butter
6 pork chops (bone-in or boneless, but bone-in provides more flavor)
2 garlic cloves, peeled
4 sage leaves (fresh)
1 or 2 sprigs of rosemary (fresh)
1 or 2 bay leaves
½ cup dry white wine
1 ½ cups milk
1 ½ cups beef broth
1 cup polenta (not instant) or cornmeal
Sea salt to taste
Freshly ground black pepper, to taste
Sprinkle the pork chops with salt and pepper and let the stand at room temperature for half an hour or loosely covered overnight in the refrigerator. When you are ready to start, preheat the oven to 300 degrees.
Over medium-high heat, melt the butter in a cast iron or enameled cast iron Dutch oven that can go from stovetop to oven. Add the pork chops and sauté them until they are brown on both sides—about ten minutes. You may need to do this in batches. While the chops are browning, finely chop the garlic, sage and rosemary needles, discarding the tough branches. When all of the chops are browned, return them to the pot, sprinkle the chopped garlic and herbs over and around them in the pan and stir for a moment. Add the bay leaves, then add the white wine around the edges of the chops, stirring and flipping the chops as the wine reduces to ¼ of its volume.
As the wine is reducing, mix the milk, broth and polenta together. Pour the mixture into the pot, making sure to lift the chops so that the polenta mixture settles to the bottom of the pot. Stir well to mix the pan juices with the polenta mixture, then sprinkle a little salt and pepper over everything to taste.
Cover the pot, then bake in the preheated oven for 40 minutes. Check the pot a few times, adding a little warm broth as necessary. The dish is done when the polenta has thickened and fused with the liquids, but is still soft and creamy. Let the pot sit outside the oven for 5-10 minutes before serving.