An Italian dinner for one.

If there is one ingredient I love to cook with, it’s wine.  If not only because of the taste, then also because it feels so sophisticated.

Am I sophisticated?  Heck no!  But of course, that does not mean we can’t pretend 🙂

The other night, I had the house to myself.  As always, it is wonderful opportunity to make whatever I want for dinner.  This is usually accompanied by a theme of some sort.  So I strapped on my patchwork skirt, donned an apron, and cooked an Italian grape picker’s dinner.  Random, yes?  But, of course, it meant the wine was flowing. 

Ok, I had two glasses, but the meal itself was resonant with the jammy robustness of fermented grapes.  Sausages roasted with fresh grapes, butter, and wine.  Simple perfection.  I served the whole lot over creamy polenta.  Wedges of homemade foccacia soaked up the sticky-sweet liquid beautifully.  And of course, all is finished off with a lovely glass of sangiovese. 

I felt like a queen.

Pretence at it’s very best.  Do I actually know anything about grapepicking?  No, but I do know that this is the sort of thing people who do might eat.  Ina Garten of Barefoot Contessa says so.  I spotted this rather odd recipe on her show the other day and had to try it.  And if I’m going to try it, I’m going to go all the way.

Homemade bread. 

Making bread at home has an air of peasantry….of simpler, though maybe not better times.  Yet, it is easy to long for those times while hypnotically thrusting the heel of your hand in elastic dough and pulling it back over itself for ten minutes straight.  It has been said that kneading has heeling qualities likened to the effects of meditation and yoga.  I think that this is true once a person becomes comfortable with the very core process of bread making.  Not only is it easy to become lost in the movements, but it is even easier to focus the entire day on that growing lump of dough.  I know my mind was consumed.  Half fascinated and half scared that all would not go well, I forceabley kept myself from trying to watch the yeast do its thing.  Like waiting for a very large pot of water to boil.

Foccacia is an Italian bread derived from the same recipe as a pizza dough.  I used one from the Joy of Cooking.  This recipe is for pizza crust, but the difference is that the dough rises a second time in 9-inch cake pans.  Before baking, I pressed my fingertips lightly over both rounds and topped them with olive oil, herbs, and parmesan.  This made for a most enticing smell coming from the oven.

My bread was good, but I cannot pretend it is anywhere near as good as a loaf baked by a skilled artisan who has years of practice under his belt.  Mine is nothing compared to that.  But for the moment, it tastes better than anything in the world, if only because I made it with my own two hands.

As good as fresh bread is, the very best part of this meal was the sauce.  It sort of blows my mind how simplicity can be so flavorful in an interesting way.  This sauce is sweet and sour.  Sweet because of the fresh grapes, which release sugary juice as they roast away.  Sour because of the wine and a splash of balsamic vinager at the very end.  Butter cuts through the acidic liquid and adds a touch of richness. Even Italian sausage does not steal the show when it comes to this dish.  Like a reversal of roles.  The meat accompanies the sauce.

Being a carbaholic, I could not resist the urge to serve the meal over something…though the bread could’ve stood in for that.  I had never made polenta before, and it seemed just the sort of thing to go with sausages and grapes. 

It was the bubbling pot from hell.  As I poured the polenta into the boiling water, globs of the cooked mush began to spurt out the sides of the pot.  Yet, I kept stirring away, ignoring the pain each time a little bit hit my arm.  All of a sudden, the entire mass sucks in on itself, like quicksand.  Staring in utter horror, I watched as a gigantic glob of poleta popped up and back into the pot.  I quickly pushed the pot off the burner.  Something went terribly wrong…and I think I know what it was.

Instead of pouring the polenta into the pot for the entire duration of the 3 minutes in which it was to cook….I poured it slowly, but within the first minute.  Minor detail, yes.  However, it cooks SO quickly, that it will become violently hot if done too fast.  I’m lucky I didn’t get burns on my face.  I guess I’ll know better next time.

When dinner was ready, I set the table beautifully, turned on romantic Italian dinner music, thanked God for the food before me…and for saving me from being incinerated in a burning hailstorm of polenta….  and enjoyed dinner by myself. 

Was it lonely?  No way!  I like my own company…a lot 🙂  Of course it’s nice to dine with the people I love, but sometimes a girl needs alone time.  I made the food I wanted that night.  You know what?  It felt and tasted dang good.  Like I was a queen. 

This may be pretence, but at times that can be the very best 🙂

***For this particular dinner, I cut a recipe for 6 – 8 people down to 1.  Needless to say, there was much “eyeballing” of ingredients as opposed to measuring.  For this reason, I don’t feel right giving you my own directions, but instead the link to Ina’s recipe.  As a rule of thumb, too much wine and butter is never a bad thing, so don’t skimp on those two things no matter how much you make.  Also, the grapes are lovely, so I encourage you to cook a rather large portion of them in proportion to the sausages.  Kapeesh?  This really is the simplest of recipes, so it is difficult to get wrong.  Enjoy!

http://www.foodnetwork.com/recipes/roasted-sausages-and-grapes-recipe/index.html

Foccacia

adapted from The Joy of Cooking

Makes two 9 inch round loaves.

1 1/3 cups warm water (about 105 degrees

2 1/4 tsp (1 package) active dry yeast

3 1/2 cups all-purpose flour

2 tbls olive oil

2 tsp salt

1 tbls sugar

Method:

Combine water and yeast in a large bowl.  Mix and let dissolve for roughly 5 minutes.  Add flour, olive oil, salt and sugar.  Mix by hand for a minute, then knead dough for 10 minutes by hand.  Dough will be smooth and elastic when ready.  Transfer the dough to a clean bowl coated lightly with olive oil and turn dough to coat with oil as well.  Cover with a clean cloth and set in a warm place for 1- 1 1/2 hours so the dough can rise.  I like to heat an oven on warm, turn off, and set the bowl on the stove top so the residual heat can help it along. 

After the first rising, grease two 9 inch cake pans with olive oil.  Divide the dough in half and roll each piece to 9 inch rounds.  Set in pans and let rise in warm place for another 1 1/2 hours.  Ten minutes before dough is done rising, preheat oven to 400 and prep the ingredients to top your foccacia. 

For each round:

2-3 tbls olive oil

1-2 tbls parmesan

1 teaspoon dried herbs like rosemary, dill, basil, oregano, thyme, or more (I used a combo of thyme and basil)

1/4 teaspoon coarse sea salt

Press dough, lightly, all over with fingertips to give the foccacia it’s signature dimpled look.  Drizzle each round with olive oil, sprinke on cheease, and lastly the herbs and salt. 

Bake bread for about 25 minutes or until golden brown on top.  Remove pans and place on cooling racks.  Bread can be eaten warm or at room temp.  It is great cut into long slices or cut horizontally as sandwich bread.

 

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