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Cornmeal-Crusted Focaccia with Spiced Broccoli Raab & Pecorino

Polenta, seldom eaten in southern Italy, is a staple in Calabria. It is cooked soft and topped with chickpeas, broccoli raab, or sausages and beans, as well as baked into savory pies and breads. Here I adapted a classic Calabrese recipe for a spiced cornmeal focaccia known as pitta di granturco and topped it with boiled broccoli raab, garlic, chilies and Pecorino to make a very tasty focaccia. I love it in generous wedges with a simple green salad for lunch, or served with grilled Italian sausage and sweet peppers for a hearty dinner.

You have to like the slightly bitter flavor of broccoli raab, and the rustic charm and crunch of a cornmeal dough, to enjoy this unusual focaccia; I love both, so it is one of my favorite ways to enjoy greens and homemade bread.

I find the best thing about cornmeal doughs is their pleasantly gritty texture and the way the grains sort of pop in your mouth, so I always buy stoneground cornmeal for best flavor and texture. Coarse Italian polenta works well too, as long as it is not an instant variety.

Because cornmeal has no gluten at all, there is a proportion of all-purpose flour in the dough; this ensures the focaccia won’t emerge as dense as a brick. The dough will feel a bit cakey when kneaded, and won’t rise dramatically in the oven, so don’t be alarmed. And remember to allow time for overnight rising of the dough in the refrigerator.

Serves 2 as a main course or 4 as an appetizer

For the dough:

  • ¾ cup stone-ground coarse cornmeal
  • ½ cup unbleached all-purpose flour, plus extra as needed
  • ¾ teaspoon instant yeast
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • 1 teaspoon fennel seeds
  • ¼ teaspoon cayenne pepper
  • 1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil, plus extra for greasing the pan
  • ½ cup plus 1 tablespoon warm (100°F) water, plus extra as needed

For the topping:

  • 1 bunch broccoli raab, tough stems removed, washed and chopped
  • 1 tablespoon plus ½ teaspoon salt
  • 3 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • ¼ teaspoon chili flakes
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • ½ cup freshly grated Pecorino Romano

Make the dough: Place the cornmeal, flour, yeast, salt, fennel seeds, and cayenne in a food processor. Mix a few seconds to combine. With the motor running, add the olive oil, then pour in the water to make a soft dough that forms a ball around the blade. Add a little more water if the dough is dry or a touch of all-purpose flour if it is sticky. Process for 45 seconds. Lightly flour a bowl, and place the dough in it.

Shape into a rough ball, cover the top of the bowl with plastic wrap, and let rise at room temperature until almost doubled, about 1 hour. Refrigerate overnight so the dough develops a deep, sweet, complex flavor.

A few hours before you are ready to bake, remove the dough from the refrigerator, place it on a very lightly floured counter, and knead it a few times. Alternately, knead it while it is still inside the bowl if that is easier for you. Reshape into a ball, return it to the bowl, and cover again.

One hour before baking, preheat the oven with a baking stone in it to 425°F (preferably set on convection bake).

Make the topping: Bring 2 quarts of water to a boil. Add the raab and 1 tablespoon of the salt. Boil the raab 5 minutes, or until it is bright green and tender, and drain. Cool under running water, drain again, and squeeze almost (but not completely) dry. The raab has to retain some of its natural moisture or the topping will be unpleasantly dry, but it shouldn’t be too moist, or the crust will be soggy rather than crispy.

Chop the raab a few times and place it in a bowl. Add 1 tablespoon of the olive oil, ¼ teaspoon of the salt, the chili, garlic, and Pecorino, and mix well. Taste for salt and adjust as needed.

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Generously oil a 12-inch pizza pan. Place the dough in the oiled pizza pan.

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Using your hands, flatten the dough so it covers the bottom of the pan; it should be about 1/2-inch thick. Brush with 1 tablespoon of the olive oil and season with the remaining ¼ teaspoon of salt.

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Scatter the raab topping all over the dough and spread it out evenly. Cover with plastic wrap. Let rest for for 30 minutes (this allows the gluten to relax). Remove the plastic wrap.

Bake on the baking stone in the preheated oven for 15 to 20 minutes, or until golden brown all over and crispy around the edges, spraying the oven floor with ¼ cup of water 3 times during the first 10 minutes of baking.

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Brush with the remaining tablespoon of olive oil and cut into wedges. Serve hot.

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