Here in the Forage kitchen, much of what I cook can be characterized as peasant cooking. It’s based on using what I have on hand to take advantage of what’s in season now and to eliminate food waste later.
This approach to cooking is simple, practical and comforting. And inexpensive.
The Italians call it cocina povera. The poor kitchen.
But I didn’t expect to find this old-fashioned and resourceful approach to be practiced with so much dedication at one of San Francisco’s landmark restaurants.
I finally went to the Zuni Café last week. It came after years of reading and worshiping chef Judy Rodgers’s writing, and having watched her humbly accept the James Beard Award for cookbook of the year for The Zuni Café Cookbook. I wondered if I was too late.
Judy died nearly 3 years ago at 57. The obituary in The New York Times called her the “chef of refined simplicity.”
I walked into the restaurant on a Saturday night at 7 p.m., hardly expecting to find elbow room at the atrium bar, never mind a table. But there it was, a two-top near the bar with its floor to ceiling windows and the lights shining through the booze bottles like stained glass.
On a shelf stood stacks of The Zuni Cafe Cookbook.
I was chilled to the bone from the cloudy and damp Bay Area weather and hungry in the way you get as a tourist walking around any city. Walking far more than you plan,and subsisting on mostly coffee because you’re still digesting the hotel bagel you ate that morning.
I scanned the menu. Amidst the anchovies and squid, grilled salmon and wood-fired chicken was this item listed with the pastas:
Bowl of polenta with mascarpone or Parmigiano-Reggiano $7.00
That was it, no garnish, no embellishment. Polenta in a bowl with your choice of cheese.
What was going on here?
A Bowl of Polenta
It was exactly what I craved: warm, elemental, satiating. But I was also flummoxed by it. In this restaurant heyday, what kind of place serves something this … plain?
I asked the waiter about it, and he seemed a little embarrassed. “Listen,” he said in a low voice. “It’s really quick, so if you decide you want it, I’ll get some for you.”
I did. But first I asked him, “Which cheese do you recommend?”
“Well,” he said, grinning, “I like both.”
I imagined the waitstaff, starving after their long shifts, looking for something to eat in the kitchen and the cooks trying to foist the leftover polenta on them. There was always leftover polenta.
Sure enough, within a minute, the waiter was back with my bowl of glossy, smooth and steaming polenta. Slightly submerged in the center sat a puddle of mascarpone with shavings of parmesan on top.
Refined simplicity for sure. Judy Rodgers’s imprint was still very much there, influencing the style and the confidence of a restaurant that knows what it knows is good and true and nourishing in more ways than one.
I haven’t stopped craving that polenta since I got back home.
Oven Polenta with Mascarpone & Parmesan
This is my rendition of oven polenta, a side dish that I often make to accompany braised meats or ragù. I’ve never thought of serving it on its own–that is, until I went to one of San Francisco’s most famous restaurants! The best part about this oven technique is that there’s none of the splattering and stirring of the stove top version, and once its cooked, it will wait patiently in the oven until you’re ready to eat. Enjoy it with both types of cheese–quality is everything here–mounded on top and stirred in by the spoonful.
- 1 cup polenta not instant
- 1 teaspoon sea salt
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- 1 cup mascarpone
- 1 cup shaved Parmigiano-Reggiano
Heat the oven to 300°F and bring 3 cups of water to a boil. Whisk the polenta with 1 cup cool water plus the salt in a 2-quart oven-save casserole dish until smooth.
Whisk in the boiling water until the polenta is smooth. Cover the dish with a tight-fitting lid or aluminum foil and placed in the oven to cook for 1 1/2 to 2 hours, stirring every 30 minutes. The polenta is done when it swells and pulls away from the sides of the dish when stirred.
Stir in the butter and keep warm until ready to serve. (If the polenta gets too stiff while sitting, stir in hot water 2 tablespoons at a time until it smooths out once again.)
To serve, dollop the polenta into warmed serving dishes. Place a large spoonful (about 2 tablespoons) of mascarpone into the center. Crumble up the parmesan shavings and sprinkle them generously over the mascarpone.