Leonida Frediani, Don’s mother, was, not long ago, a lovely little lady of 93 who still cooked up a storm of “old country” dishes. She was still driving to the market from her hilltop house to choose her provisions with an unfoolable eye: for the right peach, the best pear, the freshest Blue Lake bean — if, that is, she wasn’t picking lunch or dinner from the huge vegetable garden just below her kitchen window: such fussiness, alas, has become socially unacceptable. I suspect Leonida was so tuned to the heart of the gastronomical matter she didn’t notice that three-star view over the Russian River valley and down to the distant stream of traffic on Highway 101, a million feet, it could have been, below her Shangri-La.
Meanwhile Mr. Frediani, if he wasn’t off hunting – he’d invested well and retired from his Plymouth agency at fifty-five – would lounge in the well-stuffed and very red leather chair he was allowed to retain amidst the fine crisp lines of a modern house son Don had commissioned from the architect Mario Corbett.
Now a polenta minestrone such as Leonida’s Farinata is a rare thing in cookbooks and in restaurants too —
Here are cabbage and sausages again as in Gigi’s Alsatian soup, but translated from Strasbourg to the bucolic Garfagnana just north of Lucca the meat-and-veg change their colors, so to speak. Whatever its provenance, this is your perfect soup for a winter day, the ideal meal-in-a-bowl, a singing porridge to please the soul as well as tum.
Leonida and my mother got on very well. They came from quite different backgrounds, garlic and non–garlic, etc., but they were both perfectionists in “quality of life” concerns – and, because of that, they had their cranky moments, not at times un-operatic I should add. When Don Frediani was a Navy officer in Korean waters, my mother wrote him faithfully: letters Victorian in their formality yet utterly up-to-date in their feistyness.
In a large pot simmer for an hour, covered:
1 small ham hock with the skin left on
2 Italian sausages cut into thick rounds
1 small head of sliced cabbage
1/2 bunch of chard, trimmed, washed and torn into manageable pieces
1 14-ounce can of tomatoes
2 cups of cooked cannellini beans, drained (the canned variety has Leonida’s stamp of approval)
2 cloves of garlic, sliced thin
5 cups of chicken broth
When the soup is virtually ready to serve take out the ham hock, skin it and cut the meat into pieces and put them back in the pot, then slowly add a cup of coarse polenta, stirring constantly until it’s well mixed into the soup. This is prelude to simmering the soup for 25 minutes more, stirring it every 5 minutes or less to prevent the polenta sticking to the pot.
Serve this Farinata with a teaspoon of olive oil drizzled over each serving plus a little shower of grated dry jack or parmesan cheese.
LEFTOVERS? Reheat the soup, topped with a little olive oil and a lot of grated cheese, in a skillet coated with oil, then run it under the broiler until brown. The result is no longer a soup, it’s a polenta cassoulet!