In the litany of pre-college connections that The Wife and I share, there was Uncle Tom. Quiet, opinionated, funny Uncle Tom.
Uncle Tom was a fixture at Ducky’s Tavern, a neighborhood watering hole from back in the days when PBR was a blue-collar beer, not a hipster trend, and when no one looked the other way when someone brought a three-year-old with them on a Saturday.
My Saturdays, from about three to six years old were spent sitting on the safe or in front of a arcade bowling game at Ducky’s (your’s wasn’t?). My father was a regular and, as regulars do, he had a barstool to occupy…specifically the one on the short end of the L-shaped bar near the bathroom. The cast of characters included some shady folk–gamblers and bookies–as well as people named Twerpy, Corky and Farmer. And, there was Uncle Tom.
I met The Wife as a freshman in college and it didn’t take long for my father to start connecting dots. Uncle Tom married Aunt Barb. Aunt Barb’s sister is The Wife’s mother. Instant connection. So, when The Wife’s family annexed ours for holidays following my mother’s death and the Western migration of one segment of my family, it was not so much a stranger being introduced. It was another guy from Ducky’s who stopped by for dinner.
Uncle Tom was the pepper to Aunt Barb’s salt. Complementary but wildly different, which is probably why they had been married so long. Their house had a monstrous basement; big enough to hold a second kitchen and seating for 30-40 at Thanksgiving, Christmas, Easter, et al. When my family was annexed, holidays had moved upstairs, but the menus rarely changed. The first big holiday we were part of was Easter, which meant polenta.
Like any good Italian family, The Wife’s family is very maternal. So, Irish-descended Uncle Tom gave way to Italian Aunt Barb and the family matriarch, The Grandmother. Back in the day, The Grandmother would drag out the copper paiolo and stir the cornmeal and potato blend with a wooden paddle. Eventually, the family moved from the paiolo to the microwave.
It seems sacrilegious to substitute the paiolo for a microwave and instant mashed potatoes for russets pushed through a ricer. But, the end product carries the same flavor, especially when topped with veal stew, beef gravy or chicken cacciatore.
Thomas R. Beagle passed away on Friday evening. In his memory and as a tribute to his opening his home to my wandering family many years ago, I offer polenta patate.
Microwave Polenta Patate
The Wife’s family’s recipe
- 1/4 cup instant mashed potato flakes
- 1 medium onion, sliced thin
- 1 stick unsalted butter, cut in half
- 1/4 pound cheddar cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 1/4 pound brick cheese, cut into 1/2-inch cubes
- 2 1/2 cups yellow cornmeal
- 2 tsp. salt
- 1 tbsp. canola oil
- 4 cups water
Bring water to boil in a medium saucepan. Stir in mashed potato flakes and set aside, covering with wax paper. Cook onions on medium-high with one portion of butter until onions are caramelized. Remove from pan and place in a bowl to set. In a 3-quart microwave-safe bowl, combine potatoes, cornmeal, salt and canola oil. Mix well with a large, sturdy wooden spoon. Cover bowl with wax paper and microwave 7 minutes on high setting. Stir well, cover and cook for an additional 5 minutes.
Add onions and remaining butter and stir in. Cover again and cook for 5-7 minutes. Add cheese and mix well. By now, the polenta should be quite thick and may be difficult to mix. Cover and cook for another 5-7 minutes. Let stand covered for 2 minutes. Turn the bowl and remove the polenta so it sits on the serving plate. Cover with wax paper and let stand for 3 minutes. When solidified, slice the down the middle then horizontally to serve.
- Polenta: Centuries-old Italian dish a proud link to a pleasant past (Pittsburgh Post-Gazette)