By Murray Schulman
Lately, my curious nature that many of you have come to enjoy is once again peaked. I am preparing dishes that seem to be Italian in style. But I ask myself, did these dishes really originate in Italy? All my instincts are screaming “Yes.” Yet, I could not let it go. I had to do the research to be sure.
Let’s look into one particular dish that I recently prepared. I wanted to do something a little different that evening. Of course, we love Italian food, and I wanted to stay with that style. I could easily have made the usual pasta or risotto dish again. That is a staple in my home. But for some reason, I was determined to change things up that evening. I searched through our pantry thinking “what can I make?”
Right there sitting on the baking shelf in one of my large storage containers was plain simple corn meal. Brilliant! This is the answer. I will make a creamy delicious cheesy polenta from scratch. I made sure that I had the time knowing that making great polenta requires a good hour. I was more than ready to invest the time because this would be an awesome surprise for Liz.
I didn’t really want to serve just a bowl of polenta. I needed something delicious and colorful to complement the base of polenta. Now it was back to searching for the ideal ingredients to meet my need to create. I had some fresh chicken breast and a container of baby spinach. Naturally, I always have fresh garlic and there is never a shortage of wine to choose from. I was ready to go to work. I was going to create a spectacular dinner of Chicken Florentine over a bed of steaming cheesy polenta. This turned out to be a dish that certainly was a dinner surprise for Liz. It was a symphony of flavors and texture that came to an explosive crescendo on my palate. This was pure pleasure.
Yet the question remained: Did this dish originate in Italy? The answer is yes, sort of. The polenta recipe has roots in Milan and that general region of Italy. Polenta was peasant food. Today, restaurants in Italy serve specialty selections listed on menus in sections designated as “poor food.”
If you track backward to ancient Roman times, polenta was made from millet or smelt. Later, barley was used to make polenta. Corn was not introduced in Italy until around 1400 A.D., when it arrived through Venice from the Eastern trade routes. Polenta was not made from corn until hundreds of years later. Corn itself was not introduced into Europe until 1650.
Florentine refers to Florence, Italy. It technically translates into something like “in the manner of Florence.” Interestingly, it was Catherine de Medicis who was born in Italy and in 1533 married a French royal that introduced this style of cooking. In 1547, Catherine de Medicis became queen of France. Catherine imported her own “merry band” of cooks from Florence along with spinach seeds to grow. She had her cooks prepare dishes with spinach that came to be known as spinach a’ la Florentine for the city of origin. Eventually the use of spinach in a wide variety of dishes came to be known as Florentine.
Chicken Florentine as used in the dish that I prepared is as American as apple pie.
Now you have the back story of the origins of my special dinner with Liz. One thing that I am sure of is that my chicken Florentine served over a bed of cheesy polenta came straight out of my kitchen and onto our dinner table. I can attest to the fact that it was phenomenally delicious and not a single mouthful was left. This is true Italian American cuisine.
For my readers who love food let me say this: Be bold, be creative and let your imagination take you to places that you dream of going. Buon appetito!