Italian Corn Pone

Jonathan Jones was born in Oklahoma but grew up in La Porte. He graduated from the culinary program at the Art Institute of Houston and has worked in restaurants for over 15 years. Last October, he opened Café Chiasso (1330-B Wirt Road, 713-263-9555), where he specializes in upscale Italian cuisine. Jones recently hosted a dinner dedicated to foods and wines from the Piedmonte.

Q. So how did you get to be an expert on the Piedmonte?

A. I studied with a lot of Italian food people, people from the north, people from Sicily -- that's how I picked up everything. Mostly I learned from experience.

Q. I notice you cook a lot of polenta dishes. I've always wondered, what's the difference between polenta and grits?

A. (laughs) Not a lot. Grits are made with hominy; polenta is much more finely ground. But there are all kinds of polenta and grits -- the stone-ground grits are different. But as far as the basic flavor characteristic, there's not that much difference. Polenta is peasant food, just as grits are peasant food here. The evolution of polenta is just like anything else: Classical peasant food has become gourmet food over time. When you soup it up with mascarpone cheese, truffle oil and sautéed mushrooms, polenta becomes something quite extravagant. You know, whereas before you would look at grits and say, "That's poor people's food, I'm not going to eat that," now you go to some of the finest restaurants in New Orleans and find stone-ground grits with tasso ham, shrimp and andouille sausage. And you pay out the wazoo for it because the flavor characteristics are there, and with a balanced effort it becomes something wonderful, but still it's basically grits. Throughout the evolution of food, peasant food has made its way to kings' tables.

Q. Do you cook polenta the same way as grits?

A. Yeah, more or less. I use a nice chicken stock, and I slowly fold the polenta into it and let it simmer. It will absorb the moisture and bulk up in volume, just like pasta. You can also make it hard-style, where you cool it down, cut it into squares, and fry it or grill it.

Q. When you add cheese, how do you keep the cheese from sticking to the pan?

A. Simple. You take the pot off the burner and let the heat melt the cheese. After you fold the cheese into it, you don't cook it anymore. But I use mascarpone, which is very creamy to begin with.

Q. You made a polenta alla crema di formaggio for your Piedmonte dinner last month. Was that made with mascarpone?

A. No, that's made with fontina.

Q. Did you match a wine with that dish?

A. Yes, Icardi Cortese L'Aurora, 1999. Cortese is the white wine grape used to make a famous wine called Gavi. It's very well balanced with a citrus nose, full fruit aroma and a very crisp flavor.

Q. What kind of cheese would you use if you were making cheese grits?

A. Well, it all depends on your taste buds. If you wanted Southwestern-style, you might use pepper Jack. Or for French style, Gruyère…

Q. If you made Southwestern cheese grits with pepper Jack, what kind of wine would you recommend with it?

A. That's easy, a gewürtz or a Riesling.

Q. Any in particular?

A. The Grand Cru Gewürztraminer or Riesling from Pierre Sparr in Alsace.

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Robb Walsh
Contact: Robb Walsh