This past weekend Joel and I were in Wisconsin for the American Birkebeiner. The Birkie, as it’s called, is the largest Nordic ski race in North America and the third largest in the world. Every February, thousands and thousands of skiers descend on the tiny town of Hayward, Wisconsin to subject themselves to over 50 kilometers of hilly, sometimes icy, always beautiful, and invariably intense cross-country ski racing.
From those not used to it, I’ve heard it’s really a cultural experience.
My family has been going to the Birkie for as long as I can remember. There’s a children’s race, called the Barnebirkie (which is Norwegian for “child Birkie”) the Thursday before the big race, and my brothers and I started skiing it when we were still so little that my mom had to walk beside us the entire length of the 1 km toddler course. My parents would then do the grown up race on the weekend.
I started skiing the half Birkie in high school, and I did the full a couple of times while I was in college. But then I up and moved to the East Coast and was never able to make it back in February (much less train for it, anyway), and so the glorious Birkie weekend full of the excitement of a giant challenge and the fun of meeting up with and staying with friends, comfortably sharing tons of good food and wine and swapping war stories after the race is over, became something I just heard about over the phone each year.
But now we’re back in the upper middle of the country! And one of the first things I did upon arriving at our new home in Northern Minnesota was to register both Joel and myself for the Birkie.
So then we had to start training like mad. Trail runs and hikes followed by skiing and skiing and skiing as soon as there was snow. Sadly, fate conspired against me and last week I found myself feeling substantially under the weather and completely exhausted. Things didn’t get any better going into the weekend, so I had to bow out of skiing the race (small strangled sobbing noise). I still went with and did part time cheering duty and full-time relaxing duty at the cabin where we stay, listening happily to everyone’s excited stories of how terrible it was this year (tough conditions make for even more satisfying suffering). Next year, though. Next year I plan on being fully well enough to ski.
Joel was a champ and skied the full thing by himself (not that you’re ever actually by yourself when you’re surrounded by thousands of other skiers). And he finished! Which is seriously impressive given it was his first ever ski race, and it’s not exactly an easy starting point. I’m guessing he wouldn’t like me to share his time, though, because you see, one of the problems we have is that we are friends with people who go and do things like, oh, win 2nd place overall in the Birkie (competing against professional skiers, people!), or who can ski the whole thing on antique wooden skis and still take an hour less than we do to cover that distance. So, even when you complete a ski marathon, you still somehow never feel that good about your athletic prowess. Oh well.
Anyhow, the crux of the matter, and the point I am gradually wending toward, came during our drive back home. Both of us were exhausted for our respective good reasons and the sun was shining in, warming the car cozily and making it hard to stay awake. So we started blasting the radio. And like any reasonable people we blasted NPR (no rock music for these drivers!), thus we found ourselves listening to Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s lovely show, The Splendid Table, at high volume. As such we couldn’t fail to hear the part when she described a dish she had recently discovered, a Lombardian polenta dish in which the creamy polenta hides a layer of hardy cooked greens and melting fresh mozzarella.
Joel perked up instantly and announced, “that sounds amazing. Can I cook that for dinner this week?”
I never ever say no when Joel decides he wants to cook dinner. As much as I love cooking, I also love the occasional break, and if it involves some good rustic Italian cooking, so much the better. So, last night Joel took over the helm in the kitchen, while I played the role of official polenta stirrer. And dinner was wonderful. The polenta is as smooth and spreadable as soft butter. Its mildness is a perfect blanket for the greens, all brash with salt and garlic and bitterness and lemon, which in turn hide the chewy discs of cool, melting mozzarella. I was needing a little extra protein, so we added a bit of crumbled cooked Italian sausage (basically we jump at any excuse to use Italian sausage because the smokehouse here in town makes a dang fine version), and it was perfectly at home with the other ingredients. Of course, if you prefer a vegetarian dinner, it will be delicious without sausage as well.
And like lasagne, and millefeuille, and anything else in layers, it’s so fun to eat! Winter isn’t over yet (at least not here), so I say it’s the perfect time to dig into a plate of steaming polenta. And maybe even cram in a few last days of skiing, if we’re up for it.
Polenta Hiding Mozzarella and Lemony Greens (serves about 6) (adapted from Lynne Rossetto Kasper)
- 1 1/2 cups uncooked corn polenta (also called corn grits)
- 2 cups chicken or vegetable broth
- 4 cups water
- 1 1/2 tsp. salt
- olive oil
- about 2 lbs. of kale or curly endive, washed and chopped
- 4 cloves of garlic, minced
- juice of one whole medium-sized lemon
- salt and pepper, to taste
- 1 1/2 lbs. fresh mozzarella (as fresh as possible!), sliced into 1/4-inch thick slices
- 1 lb. hot Italian sausage, removed from its casing and sauteed until cooked through (optional)
- grated Parmesan, for serving
- In a medium-sized pot, combine the broth, water, and 1 1/2 tsp. salt, and bring to a boil. Pour in the polenta in a thin stream, stirring as you pour to prevent it from forming any lumps. Turn the heat down as low as it will go, cover the pot tightly and cook, stirring every few minutes (to prevent the polenta from sticking to the bottom), until the polenta has thickened to a creamy porridge-like consistency (about 30-45 minutes).
- Meanwhile, heat about 2 Tbs. olive oil over medium heat in a large saute pan. When the oil is shimmering, add the garlic cloves and cook for a couple minutes until it becomes golden and fragrant. Stir in the greens and a pinch of salt. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the greens are wilted, about 5 minutes. Then, stir in the lemon juice. Cook another minute, then taste a small piece of the greens, and add salt and pepper to taste.
- When the polenta is ready, divide the slices of mozzarella between 6 plates or pasta bowls (those shallow bowls that walk the line between bowl and plate). Sprinkle some cooked sausage over the mozzarella, if using sausage, and put greens on top of the mozzarella (and sausage) on each plate. Spoon the polenta over the plates making sure it covers the cheese and greens on each plate. Then, grate fresh Parmesan over each serving (you can also add a pat of butter to the center of each plate if you want, but we found it plenty rich without it), and serve. You may wish for jus a minute or two before serving to give the mozzarella a little time to melt. Either way, it probably won’t be completely melty and gooey, rather it will be in a nice in between cool and hot state.