June 22, 2011

grotto polenta and polenta croutons

Sometimes you happen upon the best moments when you aren't even looking. Zach had heard about a grotto in Ascona from some friends at work, but hadn't thought much of it until we saw a sign, tucked in a little alley way, directing pedestrians to Grotto Baldoria. We had pretty much just finished lunch-dinner (is their a name for that meal, like the brunch of the afternoon?) and weren't hungry, but we thought it might be a nice spot to have a glass of wine and relax before meeting up with Zach's friend. Little did we know when we sat down, in the tin roof enclosed outdoor terrace, that we were about to consume a full six course meal. Seriously it was six courses. First came the simple salad with a tart vinegar dressing and a log of salami on the side (a log of salami - did they know I was coming?) That was followed by a platter of thinly sliced meat accompanied by bread. We really didn't know what to expect next, but were totally blown away, mouths agape, when the chef/owner came out of the kitchen with a gigantic, red ceramic, dish full to the brim of bow-ties in tomato sauce. Both stuffed from our previous meal but so overwhelmed with joy by the man and his pasta bowl that we didn't turn him away, or for that matter leave a bow-tie unaccounted for. Okay so the pasta was the third course which was then followed by meat and polenta, a Ticino staple. It wasn't the prettiest meal, but the meat was incredibly tender, the polenta perfectly cooked and not at all oily and the sauce, gently ladeled into a spoon-indented crater in the polenta, was straw worthy. It was during this course that I had to remind Zach that he didn't have to eat everything on his plate and that we were there to enjoy the atmosphere as much as we were there to enjoy the food. We both put our forks down, slowed down for a minute and took it all in. That was course four, soon to be followed by the fully stocked cheese board that was placed in the middle of the table, which we were sharing with another couple. It was cheese at your discretion. We were each handed our own individual board and were allowed to take as much or as little as we wanted. Zach and I actually skipped the cheese course in anticipation of course six, the dessert course - an apricot covered shortbread. Do drinks count as a course? Because we each finished the meal of with an espresso and two digestion-aiding shots of grapa. Man that stuff really stings on the way down, but I actually like it, and that's coming from the girl who absolutely abhors shots of any type.

This post begins with our meal at Grotto Baldoria and then jumps to the chopped watermelon-greek polenta-panzanella salad that I made for lunch today. I guess polenta is the link between the two, but I was also inspired by the vibrant colors of our Ascona dinner when I was making the salad. I also desperately needed veggies after a weekend full of delicious meals.
Down a narrow alley and through a door in the stone wall that surrounds the terrace you will find this little gem of a restaurant. I guess I shouldn't even call it a restaurant. It feels more like an extended family dinning room. There is no menu, you are served what they prepared that night, and you sit with strangers at picnic-like tables. The lights go out every half hour, but you simply slip a 2franc coin into a slot, wind the dial, and on they come again. The wine is served in carafes and there is only one option - Ticino merlot. I was telling Zach that really this is my ideal dinning experience - they have taken away all of the options, ensuring that I won't be an indecisive orderer or end up with order envy.
Our eyes followed this man around the terrace, from table to table, all night. We were mesmerized. He never smiled but did a lot of greeting, pointing and serving. If we ever open a restaurant (a joint dream) we will certainly pull lots of inspiration from this man and his grotto.
And so ended the six courses, three 1/2 carafes of wine, two espressos and four grapas. Hesitant to leave we lingered over our empty glasses for awhile taking in our fellow diners and the god-worthy staff. What's funny is that we both agreed the food wasn't anything spectacular, but the setting and the manner in which it was served and you were treated far surpassed any other dining experience. I think this is a good lesson for a dinner party actually - make something simple and just enjoy it.

How to transition from the amazingness of the grotto to our little Zürich apartment and my silly little salad? Perhaps with some pictures of watermelon...?
In truth it's really leftovers from yesterdays dinner. We are leaving for Istanbul tomorrow morning so I've been wanting to keep it simple and not end up with a lot of leftovers that will just linger longingly in the fridge. Last summer, over the 4th of July weekend while in Little Compton, Zach and I concocted this salad. It's simple, colorful, crisp, sweet yet tart, and wonderfully delicious. I'm not really sure what to call it, but I think a Watermelon-Greek panzanella salad will work. Last night I made it with toasted bread (always looking for ways to use day old bread - any ideas?), but today I decided to try making polenta croutons. I mixed in a little parmesan cheese and cumin to the cooked polenta, spread the mixture out on a baking sheet, let it cool, cut them into cubes and then baked them. They are good, but I'm a bread girl and definitely prefer the toast, but if you are looking for a healther, gluten-free option, then polenta is a great option.
I added peaches to the salad because I had them and all of the other major Greek salad staples - cucumber, cherry tomato, red onion, kalamata olives and feta cheese. I skipped lettuce because I feel it gets in the way in this salad, but don't let that hold you back from adding it.

For the croutons
- preheat oven to 400
- make polenta per the package instructions. I made about 1.5 cups dried polenta
- once cooked (time will vary depending on whether you are using instant or not) add in 1/3 cup of parmesan cheese, some healthy shakes of salt and pepper and then some even heathier shakes of cumin. Add these ingredients to taste. Or consider adding other herbs and spices.
- once mixed spoon on to a rimmed baking sheet and pat down until about 1" thick. Cover with plastic wrap and let it cool in the refrigerator.
- Remove from fridge, slice into cubes and place back on baking sheet. Bake for about 40 minutes or until lightly toasted.

For the salad
- 1/2 small watermelon diced
- 1 cucumber diced
- 1/2 cup olives
- 2 cups cherry tomatos diced
- feta cheese to taste
- 1 to 2 red onions sliced

For the dressing
- 1 clove garlic
- 1/4 cup red wine vinegar
- 1/3 cup olive oil or more to taste

Place the croutons in the bowl and then all of the veggies. This will help the croutons soften a bit. Pour desired amount of dressing on and then toss! Let it sit for a minute to allow the croutons to soak up some of the dressing. Between the time I took these photos and now a serious weather front has moved in and it is cloudy and raining. This seems to be a frequent occurrence in Zürich, the same thing happened yesterday. If you ever need to know what the weather will be just ask the nearest Swiss person and they are sure to have the full five day forecast memorized. I had lunch with a Swiss friend today who told me it was going to rain this afternoon and I didn't believe him, but sure enough it's raining.
I ate lunch surrounded by travel books. I bought three Istanbul guidebooks yesterday in the hopes of planning our trip. I have yet to really plan anything and feel totally overwhelmed by the amount of stuff to do there. Have you been? Have any site-seeing or restaurant tips? I would loooooove to hear them. As of right now I fear we will be wandering aimlessly through the streets, not that that's bad, but since we are only there for 4 days some direction might be helpful.

Also - I've been futzing around with the blog design so please excuse any funky issues. Today I'm testing fonts...and if you noticed I designed a new header. Next up I'm going to play around with getting rid of the border around the images.


  1. LOVE Istanbul!! Spend at least two full days in the old quarter (European side of the Bosphorus). You'll need time for Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque. Walk through the Grand Bazaar and buy lots of things in the Spice Market. Take a cruise up the Bosphorus. Go to the old palace, and pay the extra fee to see the Harem. Go to the Asian side and see the Whirling Dervishes and the New Palace. Finally, eat a dinner at Hamdi Restaurant (call for reservations!!). It's the Turkish version of your Grotto dinner.

  2. Have fun in Istanbul! I am SO jealous! Where are you staying!? I wish I had good recommendations but every time we're there it's just home for Hakan so I have to drag him to all the special places...that said, everything there is amazing and just walking around will be an adventure...Can't wait to hear all about it when you get back! And your watermelon salad looks delicious! Happy Traveling!

  3. Katie and Emi - thank you thank you for commenting. I am seriously sitting here surrounded by books...and then of course there is the bottomless pit of information we call the internet. Katie, I love your suggested itinerary. It sounds right up our alley and perfect for a quick 4 day trip. And the restaurant sounds amazing - definitely a must!

  4. Hi I hope you have a nice time in Istanbul. Here is a realy helpful website, you can also follow it with social media