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Robust Red Wines of the Piedmont Region

Brian has asked me to write the culinary details of our Pro Vercelli promotion meal, begun in celebration of an imaginary electronic victory and concluded in academic contemplation of the fat in a pig’s face. Here’s the summation…

Seeking to show my support for the historic quest that is Run of Play’s route through Football Manager 2009, I promised Brian a special dinner if—I mean when—he lifted Pro Vercelli out of the bottom league. It was an unthought offering, I have to admit; I wasn’t considering hows and whens too clearly. I did know the what, though, since my cursory culinary browsing had turned up an eponymous dish worthy of an entire festival in our favorite (though completely unknown) Italian town. Panissa vercellese it had to be. We would feast on a glorious sausage-and-bean-rich risotto, a dish of ancient origin that uses to advantage Vercelli’s most important crop. I thought vaguely that when the time came for our own mini-sagra I would certainly be able to figure out how to make the panissa. After all, I was living a few blocks from one of the best cookbook collections in the world; I could, in its reading room, submit to the stern and specific tutelage of Marcella and Lidia. (The Schlesinger library may have gathered its cookbooks in order to  promote scholarly research, but they strike me as a more practical resource; I have also been known to pick up cookbooks for pleasure reading—just as, perhaps, the other half of my household can spend his off hours happily perusing manuals on football strategy. Draw your own conclusions.)

Unfortunately, Brian won the league right before the entire university shut down for the academic annoyance known as Christmas, and the Schlesinger’s culinary collection closed for more than ten days. (It seemed unconscionable to me to lock up recipes at a time when home cooking was at its most high-stakes.) I was on my own, proceeding with a web printout, a lot of Google Translator cut-and-pasting—I don’t speak Italian, not to mention Italian cooking terms; I don’t even use metric units—and a mounting sense of being in a bit over my head. Time was tight, too; the dinner had been set for New Year’s Eve, in part because a potential ingredient of panissa, cotechino, was also a traditionally lucky December 31st dish, and I figured that we might as well accrue a little good fortune for ourselves—not to mention for our football teams; there are a few more leagues between us and Serie A, I understand.

Precisely that lucky cotechino, though, was causing problems. Where could I get it? What exactly was it? A sausage, certainly—and a fresh one, but the counterpeople at my local cheese-and-charcuterie purveyor returned blank stares. Phone calls to several other Italian markets yielded nothing. I found an online source, but it looked a bit too packaged-I thought that it might seem like substituting spam for a ham hock in hoppin’ John. Plus, mail-order was a moot point, at this juncture; I didn’t have days to spare. If only I could find some description that specified, among touristy evocations, the “various spices” that cotechino contained; then I could approximate the proper taste with some ground pork.

Finally I decided to improvise and trust, picking up the freshest, mildest Italian sausage I could. But there were other problems. The rice, that was fine: I had some carnaroli. The beans, though: I knew I wanted borlotti or saluggia, but I couldn’t quite figure out if these were the same thing, or if one was a version of the other, or if I could get either. Sources weren’t sure. Though many voices assured me that “cranberry” beans were simply borlotti re-named for my New Englandy neck of the woods, I didn’t quite trust this. (Clarification welcome.) And then there was the salame sotto grasso; my area’s salami makers were as unhelpfully ignorant on this one as they were on cotechino. I was left with my previously-decided-upon routine of sausage improvisation and spice guesswork.

I decided to rely on three things. One was wine, which hides a multitude of culinary sins; a Piedmontese barbera, I was pretty sure, would make even pallid, wrong-way-round panissa into a palatable offering. The second was parmigiano-reggiano, prescribed as the finishing touch on the dish and thankfully available in American markets. The third was-of course-pork fat. (There may be a generally applicable culinary maxim here, in the trustworthy goodness of red wine, parmesan, and pork fat.) Panissa called for lardo, and that I could buy locally—a gorgeous, glistening, opaque length lying seductively in waxed paper. I figured that it couldn’t possibly make rice and beans taste bad. As my third-favorite blogger can explain in greater detail, bacon, in its many manifestations, makes the world go round.

And indeed, this trinity of taste did justify my faith, letting Brian and me ring in the New Year well fed. I soaked and simmered my New-England-Italian cranberry-borlotti legumes, cooked  my fatty, fragrant sausage in some fatty, fragrant onions, stirred my softening, wine-plumped rice, and served it all up hot and dusted with cheese. We had tomato bruschetta to start, a green salad with some great bra duro afterward, then some fruit and chocolate and coffee to finish, and we looked ahead to the Pro Vercelli path to glory that will be the year 2009.

Then a few days later, when the library opened, I made my way there ready to face the stupid mistakes I shouldn’t have had to make. The results, though, were less than fully illuminating; many of the standard Italian cookbooks had nothing to say about panissa vercellese. Marcella offers only a recipe for “paniscia,” a vegetable-soup-and-sausage risotto; this “merger of two lusty dishes,” as she calls it, combines red-wine risotto and a “generously endowed minestrone.” That much sex in that dogmatic a tone might have proven irresistible, had I read Marcella’s description before New Year’s, but the dish seems less authentically Vercellesean than the recipe I’d printed from the internet. Marcella’s was helpful with some ingredients: I should have been looking not for salame sotto grasso but salam d’la duja, it turns out-which may be a sausage of donkey meat (in which case I am really out of luck), or may just be a sausage made  in a clay pot. As replacement, however, Marcella recommends “a high-quality, tender salami that is neither too spicy nor too garlicky,” so I probably wasn’t wildly far off. As for the borlotti/saluggia/cranberry question, Marcella simply calls for cranberry beans in recipes, so again, I can’t be too wrong when using them.

And the cotechino? Lidia Bastianich provides a recipe-yielding 8 pounds, one might add, since “there’s no point in making smaller quantities than this.” Indeed. And really, when a dish calls for the head of a small pig in preparation, does one really want leftover ingredients? Lidia’s formula was useful in answering my question of seasoning—bay leaves, allspice, salt, pepper, garlic, and white wine, which was again fairly close to what I had done. But it was dangerous in provoking the question of future cotechino; sitting there in a quiet, carpeted, blond-tabled reading room of the country’s oldest institution of higher learning, watching the laptop-tapping scholars around me, I had the brief vision of renting a meat grinder, buying some sausage casings, and ordering “2 pounds pork skin” and “4 pound lean pork butt” from a butcher—not to mention “2 pounds face and butt fat.” What would Brian say if he were to emerge from a hard few hours of managing teenagers or fighting with a financial board—only to open the fridge door for a refreshing drink and see a pig’s snout poking up from the top shelf? “It could be your new mascot,” I argued on the evening after my library sojourn. “Um, only if we were to lose a lot of games,” he replied.

And then I realized that what might be the “official” recipe, the Sagra della Panissa recipe doesn’t even call for cotechino. Oh well.

So for now, I will compromise, accept my ignorance, hope for further education (is cotenna just pork fat, too, I wonder?), and enjoy. In that spirit, here’s the recipe that I made, and one that I’ll make again, I think, whether or not Vercelli’s virtual team moves up another notch in their conceptual climb. It’s a good, hearty, completely unvirtual dish, full of flavor and substance, fortifying if you’re facing the start of a rough season in a new league or just the start of a cold month in a new year.

Inauthentic Panissa Vercellese

makes about 4 servings, depending on whom you are serving

½ lb. carnaroli rice

½ lb. cranberry beans

1 Italian sausage, not too spicy or sweet, about ½ lb.

1 onion

¼ lb. lardo or pancetta

1 medium onion

4 bay leaves

1 ½ to 2 cups red wine

1 teaspoon nutmeg

1 tablespoon sage

salt and pepper

parmesan cheese

1.) Soak the beans overnight (at least 12 hours) in a pan of cold water that covers them by about one inch. Drain; discard the water (or use it for another purpose).

2.) Chop half of the lardo and heat it gently for a minute or two in a large pan; add half the onion, diced. Fry over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about two minutes. Cut up the sausage into three or four chunks. Add the beans, bay leaves, sage, nutmeg, and the sausage chunks to the pot with the onion. Add salt and pepper. Add water to cover by one-half inch. Cook for about 2 hours on low heat, until the beans are tender. If the mixture ever seems too dry, add a little more water.

3.) Drain the bean mixture, retaining the liquid.

4.) In the same pan in which you cooked the beans, put the remaining lardo and heat it gently for a minute or two; add the other half of the onion, diced. Fry over medium heat until the onion is translucent, about two minutes. Add the rice, tossing it until glossy, about two minutes. Add one-half cup of the wine, stirring; stir until the wine is completely absorbed. Continue with the rest of the wine, stirring constantly. Stop when the rice is still very al dente but looks vaguely plump. (You may not need all the wine.)

5.) Remove the sausage chunks from the bean mixture and crumble into smaller pieces. Add bean mixture and sausage to the rice, stirring to incorporate. Add one cup of the water retained from cooking the beans. Cook fifteen to twenty minutes at a simmer, stirring, until the rice is cooked. Add more of the water retained from the beans if the dish looks too dry or if you prefer a looser texture.

6.) Remove the bay leaves. Add salt and pepper to taste. Serve with grated parmesan cheese.

Read More:

Robust Red Wines of the Piedmont Region

by Siobhan Phillips · January 7, 2009

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