You would think, wouldn't you, that a decent kitchen would be high on a cook's list of priorities. Yet mine is as lacking as it was when I moved in to my new place almost a year ago. Pushed aside by more urgent projects - central heating, roof repairs, getting the bones of the garden installed - the kitchen still awaits the fairy godmother's wand that will transform it from a chill galley to the throbbing pulse of my home.
Instead of a fat larder and a well-worn table bearing the scars of a thousand happy meals, the most eye-catching details of my cooking space are the bulging plaster over the work counter, the condensation that runs down the walls every time I boil water for pasta, and a lack of heating that requires me to put the oven on to warm it up before I can lift so much as a wooden spoon.
Yet everything changes once there is a pan on the stove.The frigid air warms, the cracks heal, the unworkable layout becomes insignificant as soon as steam rises from a cast-iron cooking pot. Make its content the warming, golden, maize-meal mush known as polenta, and I might as well be sitting in my own dream kitchen, a Labrador curled up in a basket by the Aga and a treacle-and-crumpets voice emanating seductively from the old Roberts radio.
Food that steams and bubbles in quantity brings companionship to any space. Spooning dollops of amber polenta on to everyone's plate then passing the butter, the Gorgonzola dolce and the Parmesan round on a winter's day makes it all the more clear why our European ancestors preferred stodge to sushi.
Starch-based slop - be it porridge, rice, polenta or mash - has long kept the wolf from the door in snow-bound Europe. (As I write, there is sleet at my windows and treacherous ice outside my door.) We may dress things up by stirring salt and butter into our oats or stock and Parmesan into our rice, or turn our mashed spuds into the luxurious aligot (the French potato, cheese and garlic purée), but it is still the steaming starch that lies at the heart of it all.
Stirring a pan of polenta, you feel you have stepped back a thousand years, yet it is only a decade since the hip British cook learned to love this maize flour stirred to a thick paste with water and salt. I have taken to the traditional manner, that is, serving the coarse, sand-like mush hot from the pot one day (served aside something wet and sloppy like a stew), then letting it cool and frying it in thick slabs the next. Either way, it is supper at its most spiritually warming.
Of the two main types of polenta flour, the coarse varieties or the finer 'quick-cook' version, it is the former that gets my vote. We are only talking about a few minutes either way - one takes about 15, the other 40 - but the difference is akin to that between proper pasta and a Pot Noodle. It is quite usual to stir the flour into boiling, heavily salted water, though you find old recipes which use milk or stock. I like the stock idea, but my broth is so precious that I invariably eat it by itself.
The stirring, incidentally, is important, and I have given in to received wisdom here: a wire whisk will mix the grain and water easily and prevent any lumps forming. A wooden spoon can then take over to stir as it thickens. Wise words, but I prefer a flat wooden spatula, one with which I can get right into the corners, where the stuff is prone to hide and burn. A friend assures me that a clean pebble added to the pan will stop any sticking. But there is no way I'm going out into that freezing mud. I shall just stand and stir, soaking up the hot steam, thinking of doing something wild like taking off my thermals, or perhaps even doodling a kitchen design on the back of the gas bill.
Roast guinea fowl with mushrooms, sage and buttered polenta
Every time I roast a guinea fowl, I ask myself why I don't do it more often, then I forget about it for another year. Silly, because it is a fine bird when cooked with care, with a mildly gamey flavour nicely poised between chicken and pheasant. I tend to serve it as a two-serving roast, then make a broth with the bones, stripping off any remaining meat and adding it to the soup with a little cooked pearl barley, some dry sherry and lots of chopped parsley. Serves 2-3, with plenty for seconds.
1 guinea fowl
2 bushy sprigs of sage
1 large onion
250g large chestnut mushrooms
1 large clove of garlic
2 wine glasses of red wine
1 wine glass of Madeira
for the polenta
Set the oven at 200 C/gas mark 6. Rinse and dry the bird, then season it all over, inside and out, with salt and black pepper. Stuff one of the sprigs of sage inside, along with a quarter of the onion.
Peel the remaining onion and roughly chop it - the pieces can be quite large, this is a hearty dish - and let them cook in a couple of tablespoons of the oil in a sauteuse or frying pan set over a moderate flame.
As the onion starts to colour (it should be a pale gold), then cut the mushrooms into quarters and add them to the onions, with the remaining sage leaves pulled from their stem, the garlic (peeled and sliced), and a good grinding of salt and pepper.
Warm a couple of tablespoons of olive oil in a roasting tin, place it over a high to moderate flame, and brown the guinea fowl all over. Put the bird in the oven and roast for 20 minutes.
Now make the polenta. Put the water on to boil in a large pan. One with a heavy bottom will help stop the polenta burning. When the water is boiling, add a good teaspoon of salt, then, whisking all the time, pour in the polenta. It will almost immediately start to thicken. Swap the whisk for a wooden spoon and turn the heat down as low as it will go, stirring the polenta and watching that it does not bubble up and scald you. Now let the polenta cook gently, stirring from time to time to stop it sticking, for a good 35-40 minutes until it starts to come away from the sides of the pan. When the polenta is fully cooked, stir in the butter.
While the polenta is cooking, pour the red wine into the onion and mushroom mixture and let it bubble until it has reduced by half. Once the guinea fowl has been roasting for 20 minutes, pour the onion mixture into the roasting tin and continue roasting till the guinea fowl is cooked, a matter of about 20 minutes more. Test it to see if it is ready by piercing the bird between the leg and breast with a skewer. If the juices run clear, rather than tinted with blood, then it is done.
Remove the bird and the onion and mushroom mixture and keep it warm (I put it in the switched- off oven). Put the roasting tin over a high heat, pour in the glass of Madeira and let it bubble a bit, stirring away at the pan and dissolving any sediment that has collected into the bubbling juices.
Carve the guinea fowl, putting a little of the mushroom and onion on each plate with a spoonful of polenta, then drizzle over some of the juice.
Grilled polenta with fontina and sage
Serves 4 as a light lunch.
150g polenta flour
150-200g fontina or other easy-melting cheese
finely grated Parmesan
a little chopped fresh rosemary or sage
Bring the water to the boil in a deep, heavy-based pan. Salt it well then slowly pour in the polenta flour, whisking hard all the time, until the mixture starts to thicken. This will happen quickly, and as it does so, will start to erupt and splutter. Change to a wooden spoon - better still a wooden spatula - and turn the heat down low. You want your polenta to putter away gently, and to avoid it bubbling dangerously.
After 40 minutes or so, with the occasional stir to stop it sticking, the polenta will be heavy and starting to come away from the edges of the pan. Salt it to taste and tip it out on to a lightly oiled baking sheet and spread it to a thickness of about 1cm. Let it cool for an hour or more, then cover it with clingfilm and, if need be, refrigerate it. It will, incidentally, keep in good condition in the fridge for a couple of days.
Cut the set polenta into about 8 slices. They can be square, diamond shapes or triangles, whatever takes your fancy, but the first is easiest to handle. Warm a ridged, cast-iron grill pan over a moderate to high heat. Put the polenta, 3 or 4 pieces at a time, on the grill and let it cook for a few minutes till you have thick brown grill marks on the underside.
The slices will be quite tender at this point. Turn them over - it is best to use a fish slice - and brown the other side. As they brown, set the slices aside on a baking sheet, then carry on with the remaining slices.
Get an overhead grill hot. Place thick slices of the cheese on each piece of polenta, then scatter them with the grated Parmesan and the chopped herb leaves. Put them under the grill, letting the cheese soften and start to ooze (it shouldn't brown, though). Lift the polenta off on to warm plates, drizzle with the oil and a little black pepper. Eat straightaway.