When it's time for a special family dinner, Connie Berti makes a dish that takes a family to cook.
Polenta and gravy, cornmeal mush with meat sauce, is a Northern Italian specialty that Berti learned to make from her husband's grandmother, Josephine. As it simmers, the cornmeal stiffens to the consistency of Play-Doh, until only the strongest arms in the family can stir it.
"We set a timer, and stir it every 10 minutes, a different family member every time, since it's very tiresome to stir as it gets thicker and thicker," said Berti, the News' September Cook of the Month. "We start with the women, and end up with the strongest man in the house."
There are always plenty of helpers on polenta day in their Cambria home, said her husband Bob. "When polenta's on the table, family's around the table."
Connie's career is training cake decoration instructors for the Wilton cake supply company. Bob retired from Delphi a few years ago.
Bob Berti explained that his family hails from Trento, in the foothills of the Dolomite Mountains near the Austrian border. His grandfather, Enrico, would take a slice of polenta and some cheese with him into the hills with his sheep herd.
Enrico's wife Josephine was Sicilian, and didn't cook with cornmeal until she learned polenta from her husband. Connie learned the same way. "I'm Sicilian for 100 years back, and he's this Northern Italian," Berti said. "So we've got the same love story as Josephine and Enrico."
Another tie to family tradition is the instrument used for stirring the polenta: a paddle about 2 feet long, hand-carved from ash.
It was made by Enrico Berti before he died in 1982. "He would make them every five or six years, as they would wear out," Bob Berti said. "This is one of the last remaining ones."
The long handle helps stirrers get leverage when the polenta thickens, and the squared-off paddlelike blade helps avoid scraping up the polenta crust that's welding itself to the pot's bottom.
"Originally this was done over an open fire in a special copper bucket," Bob said. "You would stand there and come out with no hair, your front was hot. So the longer stick the better."
Bulked up with potatoes, the Berti way, the polenta is rolled out of its pot onto a board when done cooking. After it has cooled slightly, slabs are cut off the golden mound with a thread, and eaters add their own toppings.
The polenta, by itself, is bland as plain mashed potatoes. "You would never have polenta by itself," he said. "It's a vehicle for the sauce."
On this day, Connie made the family's two favorites, neither with even a hint of tomato.
Sausage Pepperata is a sausage sauce thickened with bread crumbs and livened with a stiff dose of fresh ground black pepper. "I can tell it's good if the top of my head is sweating like there's no tomorrow," said Bob.
The other was Veal Gravy, chunks of veal simmered with butter and onions until they are falling apart, then touched with wine.
It was originally a game sauce, and the Bertis have enjoyed versions with rabbit, pheasant and even squirrel, Berti said. "But now we just do veal."
If you make polenta the Berti way, there's one more thing you need to know, Connie said.
When it cooks, it will form a brown crust on the bottom of the pot. That's normal, and experienced polenta stirrers avoid scraping the burnt-tasting shards into the golden mass.
Sounds daunting, but here's the good news: Your pot will be fine.
"You're going to think your pan is ruined, but it's not," she said. "You just have to soak it for two days."
>Polenta, Berti Style
2 1/2 cups fine yellow cornmeal
3 medium potatoes, peeled and sliced quite thin
1/2 teaspoon salt
5 cups water
Stir together cornmeal, 3 cups water and salt in a glass bowl. Let soak for 5 minutes.
In a 4 quart heavy kettle, simmer sliced potatoes in 2 cups water until they soften, about 15 minutes.
While stirring, pour soaked cornmeal into the potato mixture. (Easier with one person stirring, another bracing the pot.)
Bring to a full boil over high heat, still stirring. Then reduce heat to low, cover kettle and stir every 10 minutes, preferably with a flat-bladed wooden paddle. Avoid scraping up the crust at the bottom of the pot.
Add small amount of very hot water, if needed, to loosen. Mixture should become creamy.
Continue to cook for about 45 to 50 minutes or until all the water is absorbed and polenta is smooth and pulling away from the sides of the pan. Turn out onto board, and let set for 5 minutes before slicing and serving. Makes 4 to 6 servings.
>Sausage Gravy "Pepperata"
6 links of good cheese and parsley-flavored Italian sausage
4 cups of water
1 1/2 to 2 cups seasoned breadcrumbs
1/4 cup red wine
1 tablespoon fresh ground black pepper, or more to taste
Salt, to taste
Gently boil sausage about 30 minutes on medium heat.
Remove sausage, keeping liquid in pot. When cool, slice sausage into 1-inch chunks. Remove the casing carefully.
Over medium heat, add bread crumbs to liquid slowly while stirring to thicken gravy.
Add black pepper and salt. Add more water if it gets too thick to stir easily.
Return sausage to gravy, simmer about 2 hours. Near end of cooking, add 1/4 cup red wine.
Serve over polenta. Makes 4 to 6 serving.
>Veal Gravy for Polenta
4 pounds of veal stew chunks
1 stick butter
1 onion, finely chopped
2 tablespoons plus 1 teaspoon dried rosemary
4 tablespoons olive oil
1/2 cup wine
1 tablespoon corn starch or flour
Brown meat in heavy fry pan with butter and oil. While browning, add about 2 tablespoons rosemary, crushed or powdered. Remove browned veal, place in saucepan, reserve drippings in fry pan. Saute onion in the veal drippings in the fry pan. Add transparent onions to veal, cover with water.
Simmer veal in water over medium heat about 2 to 3 hours. Season with salt and pepper while simmering.
Before serving, add wine and 1 teaspoon more rosemary (crushed). Thicken gravy with flour or corn starch.
Makes 4 to 6 servings.
>Name: Connie Berti
Dish: Polenta with gravy
Mouths to feed: 2
Go-to instant meal: Quick "risotto"
Guilty pleasure: Lasagne