Polenta

I hadn’t had real polenta before I went to Italy to learn how to cook. It was on the menu at La Locanda di Piero where I was completing my internship. I had maybe had it once or twice there, not really thinking much of it. But, when I had Easter dinner at the home of one of the chef’s parents, only then did I grow to love it! It was served as a side to a large pan of roasted goat (first time with that too). It was plain, made with water and probably a touch of salt and olive oil. However, when topped with roasted goat and the juices from the pan, it was something that I’ll never forget. I’m not sure if it was the ambiance of being at a traditional Italian dinner as really the only one who spoke English, and NOT Italian. Or, if it was the few glasses of wine. Regardless, that was one of the most unforgettable meals of my life, and it was amazing in it’s simplicity.

The polenta was dumped from it’s pot out onto what I think was a large cutting board set behind the table, where we spooned our servings from. This method of serving porridge, as if it was the highlight of the meal, was what really stuck out to me.

Polenta is a traditional staple ‘peasant dish’ of Northern Italy who’s origins pre-date ancient Rome. It has become quite popular in the culinary world and can even be found in some of the worlds best restaurants. Throughout my time cooking, I had always been intrigued by traditional cuisine, mostly regional Italian, and the history behind food preparation and the ingredients. The focus on quality and simplicity is why it’s so interesting to me.

Most people would overlook this as a source of starch/ carbohydrate for meals. However, it is extremely versatile as it can be cut and grilled, sauteed, fried, roasted or broiled after it has cooled from it’s creamy porridge consistency. A half cup serving provides roughly 15-20 grams of carbs (depending on the ratio of liquid used) and pairs really well with meat and fish, or even as a stand-alone side. Some recipes call for boiling the coarse cornmeal in a mixture of water and milk (my favorite) with a little extra virgin olive oil and salt. Typically, you’d use a 3:1 ratio of liquid to cornmeal for a soft consistency. Top with some fresh grated Parmesan cheese, fresh herbs, and good quality olive oil for a tasty side dish.

White and Sweet Potato Hash with Fresh Herbs

Ingredients

  • 4 Sweet Potatoes peeled, cubed
  • 4 White Potatoes peeled, cubed
  • 1 Onion diced
  • 2 TBSP Bacon Fat
  • 3 Garlic cloves minced
  • 1 TBSP Fresh Thyme
  • 1 TBSP Fresh Parsley
  • Juice of 1 Lemon
  • Salt and Pepper to taste

Method Of Prep

  1. Using a cast iron skillet over med-high heat, heat bacon fat until the pan becomes very hot but not yet smoking.
  2. Add the onions and potatoes at the same time so that both the onions and potatoes will caramelize. Stir occasionally, making sure not to let them burn. About half way through cooking, add the garlic.
  3. When potatoes become tender and have developed some crispness, remove from pan and turn into a mixing bowl. Dress with lemon, herbs and season to taste with salt and pepper.

*Note; be careful not to try to make a large batch unless you are using a very large pan. Over-crowding your pan will lead to too much moisture and more of steamed, mushy potatoes with no flavor development through caramelization. 

*Try experimenting with this recipe as the base. I’ve added chicken/ duck leg confit, or crisp bacon. Or, in the summer, fresh diced tomato as part of the final seasoning.

Do you eat enough?

This little write up was sparked by a few conversations I’ve had recently with a couple different clients.  One of them had started CrossFit maybe a year ago or so, and saw quick results with weight loss and an improvement in their fitness.  However, that progress has virtually stopped.  The other, who is very fit, and has done CrossFit for quite a few years, said she had gone to the doctor and was told that her hormone levels were very, very low and she has virtually no body fat.  Both clients were avoiding most forms of carbohydrates; rice, potatoes, grains, legumes, bread, etc.

The first client who had noticed sort of a plateau with fitness and weight loss, likely experienced this due to an insufficient caloric intake to support her lifestyle and level of activity.  In cases like this, a person’s metabolism basically slows down, decreasing the RMR (Resting Metabolic Rate), and stockpiling dietary fat and calories rather than burning them for energy.  Someone who is working hard at the gym, and cutting calories (whether intentional or not) will get smaller for a while, but it will not only be fat that they are losing and they may certainly NOT be improving their health.  It seems that the “go to” type of diet for weight loss/ improvement of body composition is to just stay away from carbs, which will naturally reduce your caloric intake.  The problem is though, that by doing this, you are eliminating the most readily usable form of energy that you NEED for any strength and conditioning program, if you want t0 see optimal, long-term results.  To develop/ build more lean muscle (which is favorable, as muscle is more metabolically active than fat) complex carbohydrates are absolutely essential.  The more muscle you have, the less flab you’ll put on!  By including more carbohydrate, your strength training results will improve simply because you’ll have the necessary energy and stamina to work harder for better results!

For someone already very lean to begin with, eliminating or severely cutting carbohydrate intake because of a recommendation to only eat: meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, and some fruit will have a very hard time meeting the demands of a strength and conditioning program and seeing long term results.  It will become extremely hard to recover from workouts if you’re even able to work at the intensity you’re capable of and because of this, your risk of injury will increase.  You will likely have trouble sleeping, though you are tired, and a difficult time waking up in the morning.  Injury is the next step, and good luck recovering from that injury when your not taking in enough energy!

The first client discussed above, calculated her macro nutrient needs and saw that she was not eating nearly enough, which is typically the case with most in this situation (that I have met with anyway).  Though the second has not yet done this, I’d be willing to bet a lot of money that she is not eating enough either (especially complex carbs) to support her daily function.  Though I believe food quality is extremely important, making sure you are taking in enough energy to support your lifestyle is equally important if you want to see long lasting, healthy results.  Calculating your macro nutrient needs is scientific, it’s proven.  For most people that are in a strength or fitness program, an intake consisting of at least 50% carbohydrate would be an easy and very beneficial approach.

 Some Complex Carbohydrate Sources:
Oats
Lentils
Quinoa
Rice; wild, brown, white
Potatoes; white, russet, sweet, etc.
Beans
Chick Peas
Amaranth
Millet
Barley
Couscous (and other pastas)