When I was a child, the Island of Misfit Toys section of the stop-action animation “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” was distressing to me, and I bet I am not the only American child who felt that way. The idea that toys that weren’t quite right were exiled to a miserable life alone on an island somewhere near the North Pole was horrible. The spotted elephant, the cowboy riding an ostrich, the little yellow scooter with a sad face . . . you couldn’t even tell what was wrong with the doll. As I watched the show on tv, I wasn’t ever that worried for Rudolph, or frightened of the Abombinable Snowman, but I was desperate that someone should save the forgotten toys.
It’s October, not December, and I’m not watching Rudolph on television, but today I felt a similar pang when I opened the refrigerator. The floppy, wizened carrot. The pale, limp stalk of stringy celery. The drooping, yellowing parsley. There’s even a bit of wine we didn’t particularly like, but had stubbornly insisted we would drink tomorrow. We didn’t. I regret that these perfectly good, entirely edible bits in the fridge should go to waste. I just can’t let the efforts of the farmers and the winemakers go to waste, not to mention my own efforts, if the parsley I grew and protected from slugs and snails all summer is left to wither uneaten.
What’s a sentimental and frugal cook to do? I can tell you what frugal Italian cooks do: They make sugo finto. It’s an ingenious dish I’ve adopted and use to rescue those last languishing vegetables and forlorn, forgotten herbs, and you should add to your repertoire too.
Sugo Finto is a Tuscan sauce made very much like a meat sauce, only without the meat, making it “finto,” fake. Instead of minced meat, assorted vegetables are finely chopped to imitate the texture of minced meat. Apart from the missing meat, this is rich Italian sauce full of olive oil, red wine and bright tomatoes, and best of all, it’s a forgiving recipe that will take any and all misfit vegetables and herbs and welcome them back to the dinner table. Have fresh tomatoes? Use those. Only have canned? No problem. The recipe below includes the standard elements in my version of sugo finto, but the proportions of vegetables, kinds of vegetables, amounts of herbs and so forth varies a little, or even a lot, according to what we have.
A word about the wine: Use whatever you have. It should be red, but I’ve used all sorts and had the sauce turn out fine. I’ve used wine that had been open too long, wine that I hated the taste of, wine I loved the taste of, and colours from pale to purple. The purpley wines will give your final sauce a bit of a tinge, but if that isn’t a problem for you asthetically, it should still taste delicious. For your reference, the photos below were of a sugo finto made with a bit of leftover Rioja.
This recipe is inspired by this one on Serious Eats, with some alterations. First and foremost, I never use 5 tablespoons of oil. I did the first time I made the recipe and found pools of oil sitting at the top of the pot after cooking. It still tasted delicious, but I’ve been gradually cutting back on the oil ever since. I always use canned tomatoes, for the simple reason that if I have homegrown tomatoes, or excellent fresh ones from the farmer’s market at the height of summer, I usually eat them raw or in simpler preparations. I use more onions, or even a mix of regular onions, shallots, green onions, and Welsh onions from our garden. Basically, what you have, you can use.
The Serious Eats version is absolutely right about serving it over polenta, but I have always used my old favourite recipe adapted from a book called What’s for Dinner by Maryana Vollstedt rather than the one provided as part of the Serious Eats recipe. You may have had an Italian tell you, as I have, that polenta can only be cooked outdoors in a huge cauldron and has to be stirred for six hours, while it spits molten hot cornmeal at you at regular intervals. I think I even saw that in a television show once. You may even have heard that polenta should only be stirred in a single direction (clockwise, or counter-clockwise, but never a mix of the two). I’m certain those methods produce lovely polenta and that those are traditions worth upholding — if you happen to have six hours, a large cauldron and much patience. And if it isn’t raining. I have always used a much simpler method, and to be honest I’m not even sure that the polenta/cornmeal I buy at a local Asian market is exactly the same sort the Italians use. I can tell you it works, though, and you’ll be done in just a couple of minutes rather than half a day. If you don’t like polenta, feel free to serve the sauce over pasta, gnocchi, or anything else you like with a robust, vegetable-filled Italian tomato sauce.
Polenta with Sugo Finto
Sauce inspired by Serious Eats; polenta adapted from What’s for Dinner? by Maryana Vollstedt
For the sauce:
3 tablespoons olive oil
2 stalks celery, diced
1 large carrot, diced
2 small to medium onions, diced
a handful of chopped Italian parsley leaves
1/2 cup red wine
salt and black pepper, to taste
1 standard can chopped tomatoes (14oz. can or 400 g tin)
crushed red pepper (chile) flakes (optional and to taste)
For the polenta:
1 cup (160 g) yellow cornmeal or polenta
3 1/2 cups (787 ml) cold water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1 tablespoon butter or butter substitute (optional)
grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese (optional)
1. In a large pot, heat the olive oil over medium heat. Add celery, carrot, onion and parsley and cook uncovered until onion is translucent and vegetables are soft.
2. Add the red wine and cook uncovered until most of the wine has evaporated or been absorbed.
3. Add a pinch of salt and pepper (no need to get carried away, as you’ll have a chance to adjust the seasoning later), then add the canned tomatoes and their juice. Stir to combine, and let the mixture come back up to a simmer. Lower the heat to medium-low and cover the pot. Leave to simmer for about an hour. Check it once or twice to see if you need to adjust the heat, and if it looks too dry, add a splash of water.
4. When the sauce is done, adjust the seasoning, which is especially important because of the differences in red wines. You may need to add salt and pepper, as you would in any recipe, but you could also need to add a pinch of sugar if the sauce seems too tart, or a splash of lemon juice if it is too flat. If you like a bit of heat, this is also the time to add a pinch of crushed red pepper (chile) flakes.
5. Turn the heat down (or even off) while you prepare the polenta.
6. For the polenta, mix the cornmeal/ground polenta with 1 cup (about 225 ml) water in a bowl. Stir to combine, but don’t expect it to combine well.
7. Put the remaining water and salt in a saucepan over medium-high heat and bring to a boil. Give the cornmeal mixture another quick stir and then pour it slowly into the boiling water with one hand while stirring the pot with the other.
8. Reduce the heat to lowand simmer, uncovered, stirring constantly, until the mixture thickens. It should take only 2 to 3 minutes. Remove from heat.
9. Stir in the butter, if you are using it, or even some grated Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese, if you want.
10. Divide the polenta onto four plates or into bowls, then top with the sugo finto. Grate a bit of Parmigiano-Reggiano or Pecorino cheese over the top, if you like.
Leftover sauce can be frozen. If you have polenta left over, the way to proceed depends on what you did when you took the pot off the heat: Did you leave the leftover polenta in the pot to cool? Or did you pour it into a lightly oiled loaf tin to cool? If you transferred it to another container to cool, you are a polenta pro unrattled by the hustle and bustle of getting a meal onto the table. You have the option of refrigerating the polenta and slicing it tomorrow to make delicious dishes with fried polenta slices, or even use slices as a base for assorted appetizers, such as the polenta topped with barbecued chicken and avocado on the Whole Foods Market site. People who have ended up with a solid mass of cold polenta in a pot? Fear not. You can chop that into small square (or square-ish) pieces and consider broiling/grilling them as Merrill Stubbs does here on Food52 (albeit with a different polenta recipe) and then eating them as a snack, or using them on salads or in soups like croutons. Or you could always top them with leftover sugo finto.
Metric conversions mine. Gluten-free and potentially vegetarian and vegan, if you omit butter and cheese, or use vegetarian/vegan equivalents.
Post by Janet
We’re a little scared of Tony Martin. How could anyone power up those mountains the way he did Sunday to take the stage win and then set out almost the very same way the next day? He made it an impossibly long way leading out Michał Kwiatkowski before cracking, and the only people able to pass Martin were Thomas Voeckler (and please, please, commentators, stop calling him “Little Tommy Voeckler” like his size is THE important thing about him) and the man who nearly won the stage, Joaquim Rodríguez. And while we’ve not had much time for Alberto Contador since what we shall tactfully call the bad steak incident, full credit to the man for riding on as long as he did with a broken tibia, which is both dedicated and mad. The race is wide open, but for the careful, commanding presence of Vincenzo Nibali at the top of the general classification.
Today the Tour heads to the Jura Mountains, the mountain chain from which the Jurassic period and the title of this post derive. It begins in Besançon and ends in Oyonnax, a route with four category climbs in a row near the end. All eyes will be on Peter Sagan, the wearer and likely winner of the green jersey, who is eager for a stage win in this Tour.
We decided to profile two of the specialities of the Jura Region which are often served together: Comté cheese and Vin Jaune (yellow wine). Comté, as you may know, is the most popular and widely consumed cheese in France, with an annual production of 40,000 tons. In 1958 it was one of the first cheeses to receive AOC status. Comté is tied by law to its terroir, as it must be produced in the Jura Mountains using only unpasturised milk from the local Montbéliarde and Simmental breeds of cow that graze on wildflowers and grasses in local pastures.
There are a number of additional restrictions, down to the number of hectares of grazing pasture per cow and specifications about the cow’s winter diet. David Lebovitz wrote at length about his visit to the Jura Mountains, and his descriptions and photographs of the cheese-making process are top-notch.
One of the traditional accompaniments for Comté cheese is Vin Jaune or yellow wine (and, as you can see in the photo below, perhaps also a few walnuts).
Vin Jaune is a bit similar to dry fino sherry because it is matured in a barrel under a film of yeast called the voile (similar to flor in sherry production). Unlike sherry, however, Vin Jaune is not fortified. It’s made from the Savagnin grape, a member of the Traminer family (the same family as Gewurztraminer), and it’s made from late-harvest grapes. The juice is then fermented slowly in small old oak casks that are not topped up during the fermentation process. That means some of the wine evaporates, creating an air gap and allowing the development of a cap of voile. The wine’s characteristic yellow colour and nutty flavours develop over the required aging period of six years and three months. Because only 62% of the original wine remains in the cask at the end of this long aging, the wine is bottled in special 62cl bottles called clavelins. The AOC regions permitted to produce the wine include Château-Chalon AOC, Arbois Vin Jaune AOC, Cotes du Jura vin Jaune AOC and Vin Jaune de L’Etoile.
The resulting wine has a deep golden colour that verges on amber, and a flavour reminiscent of walnut, dried fruit, pine resin, nuts, spice,and a surprising high acidity and imposing structure. And it can properly stand up to cheese, especially Comté with its rich, nutty, yeasty and somewhat fruity flavour. The two are a combination you won’t soon forget once you’ve tried them together, but as relatively little Vin Jaune is produced, you might find yourself in search of a substitute. You might try a a Palo Cortado or off-dry Amontillado sherry, a Cru Beaujolais, or a Roussanne.
Comté is also a great melting cheese traditionally used in the fondues of the region and in many French recipes. Try substituting it for Emmental, Gruyère or cheddar in one of your favourite recipes, or try one of these recipes:
Traditional Comté Fondue from La Petite Echelle, a restaurant and inn in the Jura Mountains
Leek and Comté Timbales
Tomato Bread Pudding with Chives and Comté cheese
Camembert and Comté Grilled Cheese with Mushrooms
Raymond Blanc’s Comté Cheese Soufflé
French Onion Soup with Comté
Potato Rosti with Comté Cheese
Comté, Goats Cheese and Onion Tart
Parsnip Gratin with Comté and Thyme
Corniottes, a triangular French pastry filled with a savoury egg-cheese mixture
If we don’t devour our Comté on its own, we’ll probably make gougères, which are basically a cheesy choux pastry. Janet has a favourite recipe using cheese and ham and thinks the Comté would be fantastic in them. They make an exceptional nibble with a glass of wine.
Happy Bastille Day to those celebrating today! One of those will no doubt be Tony Gallopin, the French cyclist whose fine performance on Stage 9 means he will wear the yellow jersey for the French crowds cheering him on and enjoying the national holiday. Historically, this day’s summit finish at La Planche des Belles Filles has been significant as a place for GC contenders, but on Bastille Day every French cyclist will be out for glory. French cyclist Jean-Christophe Péraud says, “This stage will have an impact on the overall and position on the final climb is everything. Don’t be surprised if a breakaway is successful – all the French riders will be in it to win it on Bastille Day. I think whoever wins here will have an explosive kick.”
And for Bastille Day in Alsace, what could we possibly recommend but the region’s exceptional sparkling wine, Crémant d’Alsace? There are eight Crémant appellations in France: Alsace, Bourgogne, Bordeaux, Loire, Limoux, Jura and Die in the Rhône, with Crémant de Savoie recently designated an AOC and available for sale as of December 2015.
Crémant d’Alsace is incredibly popular in France, corresponding to as much as 30% of all vin mousseux sold. It’s produced according to the same méthode traditionnelle used to make Champagne, and accounts for 22% of all wine production in Alsace. Crémant d’Alsace is made chiefly from Pinot Blanc and Auxerrois, but Pinot Gris, Pinot Noir, Riesling and Chardonnay may also be used. For rosé wines, only Pinot Noir is allowed.
Crémant d’Alsace ranges from pale gold to a salmon colour, depending on the grapes used. Whites generally taste of toast, white flowers and citrus, while rosés will be full of bright red berry fruit and rose petals. In general Crémants d’Alsace are rounder than Champagnes. For specific tasting notes, Fiona Beckett provides a good profile of Domaine Pfister Crémant d’Alsace and we also like the notes for Baron de Hoen Crémant d’Alsace Prestige Blanc de Blancs, Willm Crémant d’Alsace Blanc de Blanc, Lucien Albrecht Crémant d’Alsace Brut Rosé and Gustave Lorentz Crémant d’Alsace Pinot Noir from Cliff’s Wine Picks.
For pairing Crémant d’Alsace with food, we suggest considering Eggs Benedict (which Fiona Beckett considers one of the best wines to accompany it) for a luxurious brunch or lunch. The Wines of Alsace website also provides recipes for four of its pairing suggestions: Easy Crab Cakes, Baked Camembert with Figs, Strawberry Rhubarb Cobbler, and Corn Pudding. Like most sparkling wines, Crémant d’Alsace is food friendly and excellent at cutting through rich dishes and bringing out the flavours of all seafood.
If you want more information on the wines of Alsace, whether still or sparkling, the Wine Society’s guide to buying the wines of Alsace by buyer Marcel Orford-Williams is useful, as are Wines of Alsace, Alsace-Wine.net, Vins Alsace, and the Alsace information page on Wine Folly.
No one let the fact it was a work day or even a bit of rain spoil the last day of the Tour de France in England yesterday. The cyclists were greeted by crowds in Cambridge and all along the route to the big finish in London. The inevitable happened when Sky’s David López couldn’t completely avoid a spectator who had jumped into the path of the peloton to take a selfie, but all of the cyclists brought down in the resulting crash, including Andy Schleck and Ted King, were able to finish the race. We wish spectators could enjoy the event without endangering themselves and the riders.
Edited to add: After this was posted, we learned that Andy Schleck has had to leave the Tour de France because of that crash yesterday. We don’t see how the photograph could have been worth it, and I’m sure Andy Schleck doesn’t think so either.
Stage 4 takes the Tour back to its home in France. The cyclists travel from Le Touquet-Paris-Plage to the city of Lille. It’s a flat finish, so local hopes will be pinned on new French favourite Bryan Coquard, but André Greipel, Peter Sagan, or yesterday’s winner, Marcel Kittel, could spoil the fête. After winning two of the three completed stages, Kittel is looking like the man to beat in the sprint stages.
The Tour is passing through an area close to the Belgian border known more for beer than wine, so it might be a day to pour yourself a Belgian-style beer. Or you could enjoy ficelle picarde, a regional specialty served in restaurants and homes all over northern France. It’s essentially a savoury crêpe filled with mushrooms and ham and grilled with béchamel and cheese on top, so not too complicated and not one of the famous stews of northern France that would heat up the kitchen unmercifully during the summer. It’s also very wine-friendly.
You can use your favourite recipe for crêpes and béchamel, or use the ones below. You can use any cheese you like, but Emmenthal or Gruyère are probably the most traditional choices. If you’d like to see other versions of the recipe or other photos of the dish, try one of these:
Crêpes filled with mushrooms and ham, topped with béchamel and grated cheese, and then grilled. Makes about 7 crêpes.
For the Crêpes:
100g plain flour
oil for brushing the frying pan
For the Béchamel:
50g plain flour
500ml milk, room temperature
salt to taste and a dash of nutmeg (optional)
For the Mushroom-Ham Filling:
splash of oil
1 shallot, minced (or 1/2 small onion)
150g mushrooms, sliced
up to 150g ham, in thin slices or chopped
50ml white wine
salt to taste
180g Emmenthal or Gruyère
1. Begin the crêpes: Mix the flour, eggs and milk for the crêpes in a blender, food processor, or by hand in a bowl. Set aside.
2. Make the béchamel: melt the butter in a large saucepan and then add the flour. Whisk together and keep whisking as the mixture begins to cook and brown. Begin adding milk slowly, stirring to combine. Once all the milk has been added, continue cooking until the mixture thickens. Season with salt and nutmeg (optional), and set aside to cool.
3. Finish the crêpes: brush a frying pan with oil and allow it to heat up over a fairly high heat. Use a ladle or measuring cup to pour a small amount of the crêpe batter into the frying pan, turning the pan quickly to distribute the batter evenly right to the edges. This never quite works for the first crêpe, but will for the rest. Allow the crepe to cook until the top begins to look dry, then peek under an edge to see if the bottom has browned enough. If it has, flip the crêpe over and cook the other side. Repeat with the remaining batter. Stack the crepes on a plate with squares of greaseproof paper between them to keep them separate.
6. Preheat the grill.
5. Allow the frying pan to cool down slightly, and then add a splash of oil and the minced shallot (or onion). Sauté briefly, then add the sliced mushrooms. Stir to combine, then add the 50ml white wine. Allow to cook, stirring occasionally, until the wine has evaporated. Turn off the heat and add a small pinch of salt.
5. Add a few spoons of the béchamel to the mushroom mixture. If you are using slices of ham, place one slice in the centre of each crêpe, or, if your ham is chopped, add it to the mushroom-béchamel filling. Add the mushroom mixture to each crepe and roll up. Place the crêpes in a lightly greased dish (or individual dishes) and cover with the remaining béchamel. Top with the grated Emmenthal and place under the heated grill to brown.
And a final reminder: Do not panic when the first crêpe goes wrong. It always does. Eat it quickly and no one will be the wiser.