A Little Bit Country

Polenta was always a poverty food for central and northern Italy. So it kind of makes you wonder what those contadine would have thought about this gleaming copper paiolo , which costs about what they probably would have spent on food for the year. But if you're bent on being rustic in the most refined way, this is the authentic thing. As the Italian food dictionary Grande Enciclopedia Illustrata Della Gastronomia says, "It has a concave bottom and is without corners to permit the stirring of foods with spatulas or wooden spoons, the mouth is large and the handle is bowed. A paiolo for polenta is never made from tin because the high temperatures resulting during the cooking of cornmeal would melt the tin. The paiolo was always a cooking utensil that was indispensable in the farmhouse cooking of all of central Italy." And now the Southland. At Bristol Kitchens in South Pasadena.

Table Manners

Artist J.T. Steiny knows how to keep a kid's attention: big-mouth characters and wacky puns. Yak Kitty Yak! His expanding merchandise line includes these laminated placemats on which Steiny's super-cool world of talking animals and stretchy humans hold forth on silly subjects. As the artist would say: A Door a Bull. Available at Real Threads, Santa Monica.. For catalogue, write: P.O. Box 931628, Los Angeles, CA 90093. Or call (213) 962-6JAY.

Gone Mild

Blue cheeses are strong--to put it mildly. But not all blues bite. Auricchio Cheese's BelGioioso creamy Gorgonzola is not only creamy, it's so mellow that a blue cheese-hater could eat it straight. Don't get the idea that this cheese is a wimp--even stinky-cheese fans in The Times Test Kitchen couldn't get enough. It's soft enough to spread on panini and blend into ravioli filling. And it melts easily into pasta sauces and risotto. The cheese is made in Denmark, Wisconsin, where Auricchio has two plants, including a new one dedicated solely to the making of Gorgonzola. Available at Gelson's supermarkets, Sorrento deli in West Los Angeles and other Southland food shops.


Kitchen Tip

Cornmeal mush, called polenta in Italy, is as simple as food gets. There are just three ingredients: cornmeal (the fine-ground stuff you find in the grocery store is very good), water and salt. Oh, yes, and time. Although some Italian grandmothers may swear that it takes two hours of steady stirring to achieve the right consistency, with fine cornmeal you can have a perfectly acceptable mush on the table in 30 minutes and a very good one in 45 to 60 minutes. The extra cooking results in a deepening of the flavor but little or no texture change.

The standard ratio is four cups of water and one teaspoon of salt to every cup of cornmeal. This will make about three cups of mush, enough for four to six people. Add the meal to boiling water in a thin stream, stirring to avoid clumping. Cook, stirring constantly, until the mush is smooth and beginning to thicken, about five to 10 minutes. After that, stir every five minutes or so, just enough to keep the polenta from sticking.

Once polenta is stiff enough to pull cleanly away from the sides and bottom of the pan when you stir, it can be kept warm for half an hour or so by being covered. To keep it warm longer, put the covered pan in a warm water bath. For a more luxe version, beat in up to one cup grated Parmesan cheese and 1/4 cup butter before serving.

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