For many centuries Italy had no middle class. The aristocrats lived well, the peasants, not so much. The differences in the foods of each were striking, but it is from the peasant class that some of the beloved recipes have emerged. An example of an old recipe that is said to have come about by accident is called Calzagatti and is an example of ‘cucina povera’ from the Province of Modena. Its unusual name means “drives the cat away” and was made with two staples of Emilia Romagna – corn and beans. Legend has it that the dish was invented by accident when an old woman preparing beans tripped on the cat crouching on the floor and the beans spilled into the pot where she was cooking polenta. The terrified cat bolted away, but gave rise to the new dish, which turned out to be delicious. Any leftover polenta and beans will solidify and can be cut into squares and can be fried or grilled and seasoned with sausage, cheese or prosciutto.
1 cup dried white beans
2 ½ cups Polenta recipe
3 tbsp extra-virgin olive oil
4 oz pancetta, diced
1 medium onion, sliced
1 large ripe tomato
6 slices bacon – optional
Place the beans in a saucepan and cover with cold water. Bring to a boil over a high flame and boil until tender, about 75-90 minutes. Turn the heat off and leave the beans in the saucepan. Meanwhile, prepare the polenta according to your favorite recipe or use the recipe below for a rich, creamy polenta.
Cut the tomato in half and squeeze the seeds out, then grate the halves against the largest holes of a box grater and set aside.
In a sauté pan, heat the olive oil over a medium flame, then add the pancetta and onion. Stir frequently while cooking until the pancetta is almost crispy, about 4 minutes. Add the tomato and cook, stirring until the mixture begins to thicken as a sauce. Drain the beans, reserving 1 cup of water. Add the beans to the tomato sauce. Reduce the flame to low and simmer for 20 minutes.
Stir the beans in the sauce, plus 3/4 cup of the reserved cooking water into the polenta. Mix well and simmer for 5 minutes over a low flame. Pour the Calzagatti into a serving bowl, or ladle into individual bowls, then serve. Optional – add strips of cooked bacon to the top when serving. For leftovers, follow the description from the story above.
4 cups water
1 tsp fine salt
1 cup Polenta
3 tbsp butter, divided
½ cup freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese, plus more for garnish
Bring water and salt to a boil in a large saucepan; pour the polenta slowly into boiling water, whisking constantly until there are no lumps.
Reduce heat to low and simmer, whisking often, until polenta starts to thicken, about 5 minutes. The polenta mixture should still be slightly loose. Cover and cook for 30 minutes, whisking every 5 to 6 minutes. The cooking time will depend on the polenta grind. When polenta is too thick to whisk, stir with a wooden spoon. Polenta is done when texture is creamy and the individual grains are tender.
Turn off heat and gently stir 2 tablespoons butter into the polenta until butter partially melts; mix 1/2 cup Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese into the polenta until the cheese has melted. Cover and let stand for 5 minutes to thicken.
Stir the polenta and transfer to a serving bowl. Top the polenta with the remaining 1 tablespoon butter and about 1 tablespoon freshly grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese for garnish. Serve by itself or with Calzagatti.