Semolina. In English, the coarsely-ground meal resembling polenta milled from triticum durum or durum wheat. In Italian supermarkets, often comes in convenient 250 gram-sized packets for making soups, gnocchi, puddings and Italian babies’ first primi. Semolino. In Italian, another word for the pappa or resulting mush Italian mamme make for their weaning bambini with the aforementioned coarse yellow grains.
This month’s Cucina Conversations topic is ‘comfort food’. After coming across what appears to be the first usage of this term at this link here, I couldn’t help but think of an ingredient Italians often associate with eating in their infanzia or childhood. Don’t worry though, I won’t be spoonfeeding you a sloppy pappetta. Instead, I thought of sharing one of my favourite semolina-based preparations from Piedmont, frittura dolce or deep-fried semolina squares.
I still remember the Sunday lunch I discovered these lemon-infused delights many years ago. Anna, my now-mother-in-law, served us her version of the fritto misto (literally, ‘mixed fry-up’), a dish consisting of meat and offal coated in various ways (such as a batter or covered in breadcrumbs) and fried. Alongside that assortment of fried meat were some unexpectedly sweet neighbours in the form of amaretti biscuits, frittelle di mele (apple fritters) and these crisp, citrusy squares. Though skeptical about the sweet-savoury combination, I tried a piece of sausage alongside one of the crumb-encrusted pieces of semolina. Needless to say, that momentary doubt about this Piedmontese delicacy disappeared very quickly.
You don’t have to go to the trouble of frying meat, let alone sweetbreads and brains to make these subtly sweet morsels though. Anna, like many other Piedmontese homecooks, sometimes makes a batch to be served as an antipasto. In fact, some Piedmontese recipe books (Nonna Genia, for example) give this preparation its own entry in the antipasti section under the name of frittura dolce, meaning ‘sweet fry-up’. Beware though. Like many comfort foods, these squares are filling. And, at any four-course Piedmontese meal, restraint is necessary when eating antipasti. Just to give you an idea of the importance of this course in the region, Anna often serves three to four, in addition to the primo, secondo and dolce she insists on making come Sunday lunchtime. Limit yourself to assaggini (literally, ‘little tastes’), as you’ll still want room to appreciate the food to come…
Ingredients (serves 4 as an antipasto)
Recipe adapted from Nonna Genia by Beppe Lodi
- 500 mL milk
- 20 g sugar
- Zest of 1 organic unwaxed lemon, finely grated
- 1 pinch of salt
- 125 g semolina
- 2 eggs, yolks and whites separated
- 200-300 g breadcrumbs, for coating set semolina squares
- Vegetable oil, for deep-frying
Bring milk, sugar, and grated lemon zest to boil in a heavy-bottomed saucepan. Lower heat to a gentler simmer. In a slow and steady stream, add the semolina, ensuring that you whisk constantly to avoid forming lumps. Switch to a wooden spoon and continue to stir the thickening porridge constantly. Remove from heat once the mixture forms a dough-like mass and begins to pull away from the sides of your saucepan (about 10 minutes). Leave to cool for a couple of minutes. Add the egg yolks, one at a time, and whisk until thoroughly incorporated. Turn semolina mixture into a lightly-greased baking dish or work surface. Use a wet spatula or hands to flatten semolina mixture so it is about 1 centimetre thick. Leave to cool completely (about to two to three hours).
Use a lightly-greased knife or cooking string to cut the set semolina into squares. Put two bowls on your work surface and add the egg whites to the first one and the breadcrumbs to the second one. Dip and coat each semolina square in the bowl with the egg whites, followed by the bowl with the breadcrumbs, ensuring that their surfaces are evenly coated.
Heat enough vegetable oil in a saucepan for deep-frying until the temperature is 170 degrees. Fry four semolina squares at a time for 1 and a half minutes or until evenly crisp and golden brown. Remove squares with a slotted spoon onto a plate covered with absorbent paper towels. Serve hot as an antipasto.
Still in need of comfort? Then visit the sites of my fellow bloggers to see their recipes for this month:
Finally, pardon the self-promotion, but here’s a link to another comforting, (savoury) semolina-based dish I wrote about for Italy Magazine last week, gnocchi alla romana. You’ll find they are prepared in a similar way.