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Cotechino with Polenta and Mushrooms

Raise your hand if you’ve cooked cotechino! No? Never? Haven’t even heard of it? Well, I hadn’t either, not until late last week. I was at the butcher counter – i.e. my favorite counter at the market – buying up some veal cutlets on sale. That in itself is always a treat, because who buys veal cutlets at full price? Anyway, as I was slowly turning from the gorgeous variety of ruby red steaks, double-cut chops and perfectly normal-sized non-Perdue-factory chickens, a particularly odd sausage caught my lingering eye. They were much larger and slightly funny in color. “Cotechino,” the butcher explained. “???” I replied.

Cotechino, he told me, was a traditional Italian New Year’s food. Made of pork shoulder, it would need to simmer in a pot of water for a few hours in order to tenderize. What the heck, right? I’m no stranger to trying out borderline difficult to master foods, so I asked the butcher to wrap up a link and went on my merry way. By the time super Italian Frank came home, I grew more excited because even my adorable WOP hadn’t heard of this gigantic tube of shoulder sitting in our fridge. Score!

The other night I decided to try it out. Seemed easy enough for a weeknight dinner, after looking up a couple of ideas online. Usually served on New Year’s Eve in Italian provinces, cotechino should be cooked for a long time in water, then sliced up and served with polenta and lentils. Lentils, of course, are another staple to be eaten as the new year is rung in, as they are shaped like coins and thought to bring fortune. FYI, Frank and I have been eating lentils out the gazoo since January 1st, and so far the only thing we’ve received is the American Express bill. So don’t hold your breath with this one.

That being said, I decided to buck tradition and nix the lentils, mainly because I didn’t have any in the pantry drawer, but I did have mushrooms in the fridge. I filled a pot with water until this foot long guy was covered, added a pinch of salt and set the flame to low. After an hour I flipped the cotechino over and let it do its thing for just about another hour, then let it rest at room temperature, sliced, while I got the rest of the meal going.

I sliced up about a pound of shiitake mushrooms and sautéed them with a small shallot in butter, seasoned. After they cooked down, I tossed in fresh sage, a splash of red wine (why not) and chicken stock. Seasoned again with salt and pepper, the mushrooms now had caramelized with flavor.

Meanwhile, as the water had been boiling for the polenta, I diced up leftover cheeses from our board on Friday- Tarantaise and Sal Piave, both nicely sharp and ready to mingle. Now, have we talked about polenta yet on here? Looking back, I don’t think we have. I’m sure this will surprise you, but it’s yet another ingredient that only sometimes is kind to me. Practice makes more practice, however, and practice with a good quality ingredient makes almost perfect. Lately, I’ve been using polenta that is sold at one of the Italian shops in my neighborhood - the type of place that has been here for about ever with prices to match, only hires descendants of the original owners, and where they give you the slightest sneer when you walk in, because while you do have Italian features, there’s something else in your bloodline that just doesn’t line up. In other words, just my type of place. I stirred the old world cornmeal into the boiling water and prayed to Saint Polenta that my eyeballed measuring was somewhat accurate. After it turned into a decent looking porridge, I added a heaping amount of butter and the cheesy bits, along with salt and pepper.

While I had been working on the polenta, I also turned the mushroom mixture back on with a smidge of olive oil, then pan seared the sausage coins right in there, merely because I was worried that the simple poaching wouldn’t lend enough flavor to the pork. Although to be honest, it already looked amazing as is. Either way, I was suddenly very much craving this dinner.

Ready to plate, I set up the bowls with polenta, topped it with the mushrooms and cotechino, then finished it with a drizzle of olive oil and a flurry of parsley. I served the meal with a kale salad, this being our go-to leaf of choice. Seasoned and lightly dressed with olive oil, then roasted in the oven at 385 for ten minutes, this time I finished it with micro greens, sliced almonds, diced shallot, a blood orange and the juice of another orange. That, my readers, is perfection in a bowl.

So, how did the dinner fare? Well, as it turns out, cotechino directly translates to sausage. Ha. This particular type of blend, however, does need extra care, as it is stuffed with shoulder meat. Shoulder meat takes a long time to tenderize – think pulled pork sandwiches, a slow-roasted on-the-bone restaurant special, etc. Poaching it over a few hours did seem necessary, but the sear gave it a fantastic finish. The flavor was spectacular; it tasted more like pork than sausage, if that makes any sense, and slightly gamey. It was really good! An admitted addict to fresh mushrooms, they were a fine stand-in for the traditional lentils. Even the polenta turned out well! And the salad, as usual, was great. If you haven’t changed up your weekly salad routine, try it out. I think you’ll like the change of pace.

Will this crazy cotechino bring us any better fortune in 2015? That I don’t know. But as I stressed in the last update, honest eating is here to stay at the Caltabiano household. Was this particularly “healthy?” Probably not, by a nutritionist’s standards. But when you have a great salad, a fresh vegetable or two complemented by a small amount of meat and a little starch rooted in tradition, well, to be honest, that’s a really great meal to share on a cold winter’s night with your best bud sitting right next to you.

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