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Feb. 1 — Update

I’m such a trend-setter. Over at the New York Times, they’re whipping up my chestnut polenta. Interesting to see the pros wrestling with the same questions I did. Where do you get chestnut flour? Do you eat those proscuitto ends from the ragu?

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This was supposed to be a post about the virtues of
making do with what you have, of cooking with available resources. of stretching the food budget a little bit further in these tough economic times. But, well, something got in the way of all that virtue. Chestnut flour.

So, first, flash back a few weeks to the A16 Ragu Alla Napoletana that filled my kitchen with such fine smells and my freezer with neat little tubs of left-overs. In our dual quest to use up the things around the house and to cook our way through the A16 cookbook, I lit upon the idea of a dinner of chestnut polenta with the ragu and eggs. Defrost the ragu, make sure I have some really good eggs on hand from the market and whip up some polenta. Easy and elegant.

Wait. Whip up some chestnut polenta. So, the means adding some chestnuts to it, perhaps at the end of cooking? Um, no. Chestnut flour, stirred in toward the end of the polenta process. OK, well, Michigan is one of the places in the country where chestnuts are making a significant come-back. Some local entrepreneur must be making chestnut flour, right? Well, not as far as couple of hours of intermittent online research and a couple of inquiries at local purveyors of hard-to-find ingredients indicates. After this investigation, the polenta had moved off the list of “spontaneous ideas for tonight’s dinner” and on to the list of “must make this because it’s a personal challenge.”

Back to the internet. Chestnut flour, it turns out, is available from a few Northwestern growers, Barry Farm in Ohio, imported from Italy and, of course, from Amazon. The native brands run about 7-9 dollars for a one pound bag: Italian chestnut flour costs upwards of fifteen dollars a pound. I settled on Allen Creek Farm for the scientific reason that it came up at the top of my Google search, and I like the kitchy cartoon chestnut guy on their homepage. Eight dollars isn’t so much to invest for dinner, is it, when the rest is leftover sauce, some polenta from the cupboard and a handful of eggs? Oh, well, there’s the eight dollar shipping charge.

Sixteen dollars and three days later, I had a bag of yellow chestnut flour in my possession. A day after that, we settled got down to the business of dinner. Once you’ve got the flour, the hard part is over. You just cook the polenta in the standard way, but late in the process, stir in a quarter cup of the chestnut flour. Yup, all that work for a quarter cup of flour. What it adds is a nutty sweetness, and also, I think, some resistance to thickening, so the polenta stays appealingly creamy. Meanwhile, bring the sauce to a simmer in a wide sauce pan and poach the eggs directly in the sauce. You want to make sure the yolks are still runny enough to break at the touch of your fork, spilling into the sauce and polenta, adding depth and richness. Grate some ricotta salata (or Parmesan is just fine, after all we’re making do with what we have . . . sort of) on top. If, like me, you want to enjoy the fact that you can get chestnuts in Michigan, roast a few and add at the end for both good looks and a nice contrast in textures. The resulting dish is both homey and sophisticated and great fare for a cold winter’s night. Maybe next time to be followed by A16’s Walnut and Chocolate Semifreddo with Chestnut Shortbread and Bittersweet Chocolate Sauce. Because, after all, I’ve got a lot of chestnut flour left over, and I need to be frugal. As soon as I get a line on a good source of tipo 00 flour.

Chestnut Polenta With Ragu Alla Napoletana, Eggs and Ricotta Salata

1 cup coarse-grind polenta

4 cups water

1 t kosher salt

1/4 cup chestnut flour

2 cups of ragu alla napoletana

Fresh basil leaves

Eggs, as many as you want to eat. (We did two per person as this was a main dish).

Extra virgin olive oil

Ricotta salata or other cheese suitable for grating over pasta

Combine the water and salt in a medium pot. Bring to a simmer and whisk the polenta steadily into the water for a few minutes until it comes together and has reached the boiling point. Turn the polenta down to a low simmer (just so that lava-like bubbles come to the surface now and then) and stir often with a wooden spoon. Cook for 30 minutes to as long as you like. The conventional wisdom is that the longer you cook polenta, the better it is, but don’t let it dry out. Add more water as necessary. Toward the end of cooking stir the chestnut flour and simmer for a few more minutes.

Truth be told, you could easily skip the chestnut flour, but I think the dish would lose some of its special quality. I also added some butter because, well, butter makes things better, doesn’t it?

As the polenta is finishing, warm the sauce and combine it with the basil. You may want to loosen it a bit with a little water. Crack the eggs one by one into the sauce, keeping them separate. Cover and cook at a medium-low heat for about 5 minutes, longer if you’re squeamish about runny eggs.

Serve the polenta into warm bowls and then gently slide a spoonful of ragu and the eggs on top. Finish with a drizzle of olive oil and some grated cheese. Nice with an Italian red wine, some crusty bread and a green salad.

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