We could have just stayed in Tuscany (Montepulciano and Montalcino specifically) tasting–ok, drinking–wine, buying cheese, eating lunch, enjoying new friends, window shopping, visiting churches…
above: Montalcino: Abbey of Sant’Antimo
below: cheese shop where we tasted everything in stock and came home with a big wedge of pecorino tuscano with truffles cryovaced and guaranteed to keep 3 months without refrigeration. Yes, I refrigerated it, but not until we got home over two weeks later!
but we had to make it through a bit more of Italy, Greece, and Israel while were were at it. More on that later as a 3-week trip through the Mediterranean can’t be covered in one post, right?
By the way, we took a day-long trip to Tuscany booked through Viator, but run by City Wonders out of Rome. Our tour guide, Andy, was THE BEST.
Meanwhile, back in Colorado after 24 hours of travel, we were a bit jet lagged, but still anxious for a first meal back in our own home. LOVED IT ALL, but there’s no place home and your own coffee pot. We heated frozen bean soup for lunch while thawing a couple of game hens I’d left in the freezer. A quick trip to the grocery for a few basic supplies and I was ready to cook dinner. All of the meals we had eaten flashed in front of me and I had to really think about what to cook. I sat down with a cup of strong Scottish breakfast tea and, for inspiration, leafed through my newest favorite Italian cookbook,
FROM THE MARKETS OF TUSCANY: A COOKBOOK by Guilia Scarpaleggia.
Guilia Scarpaleggia is a beautiful and talented Tuscan cooking teacher and food blogger, who is also newly married to her long-time partner and stellar photographer, Tomasso! The book, her fifth, just out last July and available on amazon, is a 318 page hardcover with stunning photos, fun local stories, and all the sweet Italian details you could want. Divided into the regions of Tuscany, the book describes and illuminates most of the markets in the area, providing recipes and sometimes even local restaurant suggestions for each. Even if you don’t want to cook, keep this by your reading chair and travel along with Guilia from the comfort of your own living room. While the book was aptly translated, Guilia herself speaks and writes an English you’ll love reading. Follow her blog and check out her classes in Tuscany or catch up to her on facebook and see what she’s cooking today. BTW, the book would make a lovely holiday or birthday gift for someone who adores Italian food.
photo above courtesy Guilia Scarpaleggia
GUILIA’S BLOG: https://en.julskitchen.com
FOLLOW GUILIA ON FACEBOOK: https://www.facebook.com/JulsKitchen/
When I checked the index for poultry, I didn’t find anything for game hens, quail, or smaller chickens, but was drawn in by her “Pollo arrest al vinsanto e limone” — Roast Chicken with Vinsanto and Lemon. In the not too distant future, I’ll make it just as she wrote it in the “Chianti and Val d’Elsa” section, but I had to punt to eat. We often cook with what’s available and it’s usually a good choice when we’re hungry. Tiny, tender game hens subbed for a whole young chicken and a bottle of Tuscan red wine filled in for the precious, but currently absent from my wine cellar, Vin Santo–as we spell it here. Because Americans consider Vin Santo a dessert wine made for dunking biscotti, I was surprised to see it in a chicken recipe. Turns out there are different styles of the wine and some are dry, as perhaps was the one Guilia used, but then again, maybe not. Need a Christmas gift for someone who makes or loves biscotti? Take them a bottle of Vin Santo.
We needed a whole meal, so I threw some sliced carrots and onions into the wine in the bottom of the casserole with the chicken, and stirred up a pot of creamy polenta while the hens cooked. Those of you, and I know there are many, who love one-pot dinners, this delicious gluten-free one’s for you. Ready in just under an hour, you could skip the polenta if you’re low-carbing or even add halved tiny potatoes to the carrots and onions if you’d rather. A few quickly sautéed mushrooms were the ideal garnish. Perfect for comfort and company, but easy for any night you’re home, I definitely think you should try this. Soon. Thanks for the inspiration, Guilia!
below: ready to go into the oven
GAME HENS AND VEGETABLES
IN RED WINE ON POLENTA
For those with smaller appetites, divide a hen in half for two servings and save the other bird for another night. Since you have nearly an hour while this dish cooks, you’ve plenty of time to stir up some polenta and cook the mushrooms in the meantime.
- 2 Cornish game hens, 1 – 1 1/2 pounds each, patted dry with paper towels
- 1 lemon, cut into 1/2-inch pieces.
- Kosher salt and fresh ground pepper
- Extra virgin olive oil
- 1 cup Italian red wine such as a Montepulciano or Sangiovese
- 4 medium carrots, peeled and sliced into 1/2-inch pieces
- 1 large onion, sliced into 1/4-inch pieces
- 2 cups cooked polenta (see below)
- 2 ounces medium cremini mushrooms (10-12), cut in half, sautéed for a few minutes in butter and seasoned with salt and pepper*
Preheat oven to 375 degrees Fahrenheit (190 celsius) and place oven rack in center of oven. Put the game hens in the center of an oblong 2-quart casserole dish, and stuff cavities with pieces of lemon. Stir together 1/2 teaspoon each kosher salt and fresh ground pepper and sprinkle the hens with the mixture. Drizzle each hen with a tablespoon of oil and two tablespoons of the red wine. Tuck the wings under the birds. Pour rest of the wine into the bottom of the casserole and scatter the carrots and onions evenly around the hens. Sprinkle the vegetables with a bit more salt and pepper and drizzle them with another tablespoon of olive oil.
Roast 50-60 minutes or until an instant read thermometer placed in the thickest part of the thigh reads 165 degrees Fahrenheit and the vegetables are al dente to tender, according to your tastes.
Cover game hens and vegetables, letting rest 10 minutes.
Spoon a cup or so of polenta into each of two shallow bowls and top with hens, vegetables, and a little sauce. Garnish with sautéed mushrooms. Pour remaining sauce into a sauce bowl with a ladle and place on table. Serve hot.
QUICK THAW: Fill sink with water, add packaged hens, top with a cast iron skillet for 3-4 hours until thawed, changing water every half hour. Alternately, if you live where there’s plenty of water –not here!–you can leave a stream of cold water running over hens for 90 minutes or so. (Otherwise, thaw wrapped in fridge for a day or two.)
I also like my polenta with a tablespoon or so of grated lemon peel stirred in toward the end of cooking.
- 1 cup each water and milk
- 1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
- 1/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
- Pinch of crushed red pepper
- 3/4 cup coarse cornmeal (I use Bob’s Corn Grits)
- 1 tablespoon salted, soft butter
- 1 ounce Parmigiano-Reggiano, grated (about 1/4 cup)–or more to taste
Off heat, whisk together water, milk, salt, pepper, crushed red pepper, and cornmeal in a heavy 3-quart pot. (I like cast iron.) Place pot over medium flame and bring to a healthy simmer. Cook, stirring regularly, until quite thickened. Lower heat as low as you can, cover and cook, stirring occasionally until tender and smooth, tasting until polenta is done. 20-30 minutes total. (If polenta becomes thick, but isn’t cooked yet — tastes grainy/gritty– add a little more water and cook a bit longer.)
Remove from heat. Stir in butter and cheese. Taste and adjust seasonings. Cover to keep warm until needed. If cools and thickens, whisk in a little water until thinned to desired texture and reheat. Leftovers will keep in fridge for about 3 days.
COOK’S NOTE: I am not a slave to stirring my polenta continuously and nor should you be. I’m pretty addicted to the whisk for this chore–Mi piace*– but some people are really attached to a long wooden spoon (the polenta pops up as it bubbles and is quite hot) and even like stirring in one direction continually. I don’t have that sort of patience. Check this out: Mark Bittman’s video on making polenta.
*Do as you please (I like it…)
WINE: any lighter Tuscan red will do, but for date night, grab a Montepulciano and let it be the star!
Traveling to Italy? Buon Viaggio! (Have a good trip!)
Good manners go a long way; here are a few tips.
A couple of mealtime phrases will help immensely–and are fun– even if your server speaks English.
If you liked this, you might like my Lemon Polenta with Braised Beef Ragù:
Happy to be cooking my own kitchen again, I hope you’re enjoying fall wherever you are,
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