Polenta for Fall and Winter

A friend reminded me the other day that we’re entering the season when cooked cereals for breakfast and hot soups for lunch are especially satisfying. To them I’d add polenta, another softly textured, warm and comforting food, perfect for fall and winter dinners.

One of our favorite fall polenta recipes is from Georgeanne Brennan’s lovely 1992 cookbook Potager, a book my sister Nancy gave me that year, writing on the title page: “This just looked like a Debby kind of food book.” She was right. Brennan’s focus on cooking from the garden in every season inspires me, and her recipe for creamy polenta with melted white cheddar cheese topped with sautéed garlic, red peppers, chicories, chard, and spinach is one we look forward to every fall.

polenta-with-peppers-greensI made it the other night using the last of the summer peppers stored in the fridge and chard and mustard from the garden. A great thing about this recipe is that any kind of green will work. Chicories, chard and spinach are delicious but so are kale, collards or mustards. And when I don’t have fresh peppers, those that I’ve roasted and frozen are a fine substitute.

And then there’s the polenta itself, the base of this dish. To make it, most recipes suggest bringing water to a boil, adding the polenta in a steady stream, stirring constantly, then reducing the heat and cooking for 45 minutes more, stirring frequently. That’s a lot of stirring. Luckily for me, another 1992 cookbook, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, offered an easier method for cooking polenta, “a revelation,” Kasper notes, “for those who hate the tedium of stirring 30 or 40 minutes, as the stiff porridge fights you every step of the way.”

polenta-with-double-boiler

The key is a double boiler. Bring the water to a boil in the top of the double boiler, add salt and slowly add the polenta, stirring for a minute or two until the grains and water blend. Have water boiling in the bottom of the double boiler, set the top over the bottom, add the lid and cook for 1 and ½ hours, keeping the water simmering in the bottom. Two or three times during this hour and a half I check to be sure there is still enough water in the bottom pan and also give the polenta in the top pan a stir. Kasper concludes, “after 1½ hours the polenta will be thick, smooth, and have no suggestion of rawness in its taste.” I’ll add that the grains of ground corn will have swelled to a satisfying consistency, creamy and grainy at the same time. To serve six people, I use 8 ounces of polenta, 5 and ¼ cups water and a teaspoon of salt.

Though this cooking technique can be used with any ground grain, farro for example, to make a polenta, corn is the grain most commonly used for polenta, specifically ground flint corn. I use Giusto’s polenta, described on their website as having “robust flavor and the authentic Italian granulation.” It’s available in bulk at Blossom, the natural foods market here on Lopez Island, or online. Anson Mills also sells an authentic Italian corn polenta. Coarsely ground cornmeal or grits can also work but I like the flavor and texture of Italian polenta best.

polenta-closeupPolenta pairs wonderfully with so many foods. This time of year I like it with roasted Delicata squash and Gorgonzola cheese, with roasted root vegetables and a dusting of grated Parmesan, and with braised lamb shanks or lamb stew with black olives. And just this month I discovered another amazing way to eat polenta: with kale puree stirred into it just before serving.

I was leafing through April Bloomfield’s 2015 cookbook A Girl and her Greens, Hearty Meals from the Garden deciding whether or not to buy it when I saw a recipe titled Kale Polenta accompanied by a gorgeous photo of a pot of polenta swirled through with dark green kale puree. The final line of the paragraph introducing the recipe said: “You taste the sweetness of the corn polenta first, than a hint of garlic, and finally that green minerality of the kale at the end.” I bought the book. A few days later I made this dish for us and then a week later I made it for friends. I’m eager to make it again. It’s destined to be this year’s go-to polenta dish.

polenta-with-kale-puree

polenta-with-kale-puree-on-plate

April Bloomfield’s recipes for Kale Purée and Kale Polenta:

Kale Purée

Makes 1 generous cup 

5 medium garlic cloves, peeled

1 pound Tuscan or other kale, thick stems removed (about 1/2 pound after trimming)

Kosher salt

1 teaspoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Put 4 of the garlic cloves in a medium pot, fill it with water, cover and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add enough kosher salt so that the water tastes slightly salty and add the kale, prodding to submerge it. Cook uncovered until the kale is tender and tears easily, 2 to 3 minutes.

Fish out the boiled garlic cloves and reserve. Drain the kale in a colander and, when it’s cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much water as you can. Roughly chop the kale, the boiled garlic and the raw garlic.

Combine the kale, garlic and Maldon salt in a food processor. Process, stopping occasionally to prod and stir, for about 45 seconds, then add the oil and process, stirring once or twice, to a fairly smooth purée. The purée keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Kale polenta

8 ounces coarse stone-ground polenta (cooked in a double boiler with 5 ¼ cup water and 1 tsp salt)

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup kale purée

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated

3 tablespoons mascarpone (I’ve substituted goat cheese and it’s tasty too.)

Coarsely ground black pepper

When the polenta is done, stir in the olive oil, kale purée and most of the Parmesan and keep over heat, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes more. Take the pot off the heat and fold in 2 tablespoons of the mascarpone (it’s nice to run into a little pocket of mascarpone, so don’t stir too much). Top with the remaining mascarpone and Parmesan and as much black pepper as you’d like.

Georgeanne Brennan’s recipe for Sautéed Garlic, Red Peppers, Chicories, Chard, and Spinach for White Cheddar Polenta

Polenta

8 Giusto’s polenta (cooked in a double boiler with 5 ¼ cup water and 1 tsp salt)

2 Tablespoons butter

4 Ounces White Cheddar Cheese, grated

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Peppers and Greens

10-12 ounces Swiss Chard, ribs removed

8-10 ounces Chicory, stems removed

10-12 ounces Spinach, trimmed

3 red, gold or orange bell peppers or other sweet peppers, cut in half lengthwise and sliced lengthwise into thin slices

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

½ teaspoon salt

Just before the polenta is ready, heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the garlic and sweet peppers. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes and then add the greens. Sprinkle with the salt, reduce the heat, cover the pan, and cook for 3 or 4 minutes. The greens will steam and reduce considerably in volume. Remove the cover and continue cooking until the greens are limp but still retain their color, a few minutes.

When the polenta is done, stir in the butter, cheese, salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and spread the polenta onto a warmed serving platter. Top it with the mixture of sautéed greens and peppers and serve.

 

Autumn Salad

The hedgerows along the fields and roads near my house are especially beautiful now. Rose hips glow red and orange, the last of the blackberries, dark purple, past ripe, mix with sprays of white snowberries, and the foliage of the berry vines and all the other deciduous shrubs offer shades shifting from red into purple, yellow into gold, orange into brown. On morning walks I look forward to one particular stretch of hedgerow where vibrant red and yellow leaves stand out against darker vines, berries and bits of still-green foliage. hedgerowI considered picking some of these leaves to decorate the table but then realized that with just a little more effort I could recreate these colors in a salad.

The autumn kitchen garden offers much the same palate as the hedgerow. In the garden basket, red, orange, and white beets next to purple, yellow, white and orange carrots matched the hedgerow colors that had inspired me. autumn-salad-vegetablesLeeks and kale would provide the contrasting green.

I peeled the beets and cut them into half-to-one-inch cubes, peeled the carrots and cut them into two-to-three-inch strips, spread both on sheet pans, coated them thinly with olive oil and roasted them at 425 degrees until they were tender but not too soft, about twenty minutes. I cut the leeks into ¼ inch dice, tossed them in olive oil and roasted them until they were golden and starting to crisp, about fifteen minutes.

While the vegetables were roasting, I made a simple kale salad, tearing the leaves into bite-sized pieces, rubbing them with olive oil and salt then adding lemon and some grated Pecorino Romano cheese.

When the vegetables were done and slightly cooled, I tossed the roasted leeks with the kale and then arranged the colorful carrots and beets on top. autumn-saladAnother squeeze of lemon just before serving completed this beautiful hedgerow-inspired salad. I’ll be making this autumn salad again even after the hedgerow foliage fades.

 

 

Equinox Thoughts

Half of the foliage filling the kitchen garden is signaling the end of spring and summer vegetables, yellowing corn stalks, withered squash leaves and leafless pole bean vines. The other half signals the rise of autumn and winter crops, robust tops of parsnips, carrots, turnips and celeriac, full leaves of kales, chard, leeks, cabbage and Brussels sprouts, all in healthy shades of green.

fall-equinox-yellow

fall-equinox-green

fall-equinox-green-leeksPoised between seasons, the garden at the autumn equinox encourages a look ahead to the meals promised by the green side, but just as much it encourages a look back at the garden year so far, at spring plantings and summer harvests and at the surprises and discoveries that this garden year has offered.

Sunchocola cherry tomato is my vegetable surprise of the summer. It has a kind of silly name but the Territorial Seed Company description tempted me to try it: “The 1 1/4 inch round, henna colored fruit are juicy and divinely sweet, with an added depth of slightly smoky, low acid flavor that’s unusual in a cherry tomato. Rambling indeterminate plants yield generous trusses of fruit early in the season and continue for the long haul.” All true!

tomato-sunchocola

tomato-sunchocola-vine

It’s a perfect cherry tomato, imagine a mini Cherokee Purple, and the vines are spectacular, requiring a ladder now for harvest. Eaten out of hand, halved in salads or, when there are just too many to eat fresh, roasted into a syrupy sauce, it’s truly delicious and has earned a permanent place in my greenhouse.

Then there is summer-grown kale. As I wrote in May, spring-seeded kale was surprising in its succulence and flavor, slowly converting me from my bias toward frost-sweetened kale. The conversion became complete this summer. We ate kale salads every day for lunch from kale that volunteered throughout the spring and early summer and grew into robust plants producing tender leaves. I still planted a winter kale bed in mid-July, and still look forward to frost-sweetened kale, but summer kale has been an unexpected treat.

So many pears this year, how to make time to dry them all? Our extra-abundant crop left me looking for ways to speed up the time it takes to peel and slice them for the dehydrator trays. I remembered that my friend Debbie uses a mandoline to slice pears for drying and that she even leaves the skins on. In one of the biggest equipment discoveries of the summer, we tried the mandoline and it works, cutting our preparation time from over an hour to fifteen minutes. And it doesn’t take that much more time to peel off the skin before slicing the pears with the mandoline. Ours is a Swissmar Borner V-1001 V-Slicer Plus Mandoline.

Another equipment innovation this summer was an electric raccoon fence. After losing most of our corn crop last year to raccoons, we knew we needed to be more prepared for predators this year. Our friends Maxine and Debbie showed us the electric fence they use to foil raccoons and gave us the Premier 1 Supplies catalog so we could order some. It will be a few years before the corn harvest pays back the cost of the fence, but it’s completely worth it to have worry-free corn harvests. In fact, the corn fence was so successful that I may plant a little less corn next year.

Deciding how much to plant each spring is a puzzle I return to every year. This year, I radically reduced the number of storage crops I planted: half a bed of potatoes instead of a whole bed, the same for onions, only one bed of winter squash instead of two beds, the same for bush dry beans. Looking back on the harvest from this vantage point of the autumn equinox, I think I made the right choice. Harvest was certainly quicker, storage easier. It won’t take so long to shell the dry beans. I made the change because I’d noticed that, in our mild winters, leeks and winter roots growing in the garden were more tempting than onions, potatoes and squash stored in the shed. By spring there were still storage vegetables left, some of them spoiled. Maybe winter will surprise me this year with extra cold temperatures and some crop failures, but it’s a gamble I’m willing to take, one I’ll assess next year at the spring equinox.

 

Summer Meals

In this busy summer of guests and dinner parties, I find myself reverting again and again to the simplest preparations of the summer vegetables bursting from the kitchen garden right now. Tomatoes, green beans, eggplant, peppers, fennel, first harvests of potatoes and onions can all go from garden to table with very little effort.

Vegetables in baskets

Sliced tomatoes drizzled with a little olive oil, sprinkled with salt and maybe garnished with fresh basil fill a platter quickly, colorful cherry tomato halves mixing with slices of red and yellow heirlooms.

Tomatoes in blue bowl '16

Green and yellow, skinny and wide pole beans cook in three minutes in boiling water and provide a lovely tangle of colors and textures in a shallow bowl.

Beans in vietri bowl '16

Eggplant quartered lengthwise, brushed with olive oil and roasted at 475 for about 20 minutes then pureed in the food processor with garlic, lemon zest and juice, ground cumin and tahini makes a lovely spread or dip, smooth flesh mixing with bits of charred skin. Chunks of potatoes and red onions, squares of red and yellow peppers and thick slices of fennel all tossed in a little olive oil, lightly salted and spread in a single layer on sheet pans roast in a 400 degree oven for 30-40 minutes. Served warm or at room temperature they make a colorful, flavorful potato salad.

Vegetables summer on island '16

The pleasure in these meals starts with filling harvest baskets in the cool, early morning air and ends in the evening with friends around the sun-warmed table. Time in the kitchen is minimal, leaving the rest of the day open. Later on, when the calendar clears a bit, there will be time for more complex preparations but for now the flavors of summer nourish us with very little effort from me.

Summer Plums

Plums on tree IE

Our Elma’s Special and Imperial Epineuse plum trees set a lot of plums this spring and now in late-July the small, sweet, dark purple plums are ripening. After years of trying to deter birds and raccoons with netting and traps while the plums approached perfect ripeness, I discovered that I can harvest these plums before they are fully ripe, and before they attract predators, and they will ripen to near perfection in a cool pantry. Raccoons still occasionally stage nighttime raids and birds peck at fruit now and then, but we get the bulk of the harvest to enjoy fresh, transformed into desserts or preserved for winter.

A bowl of fresh plums to share at breakfast, lunch or dinner is the easiest way to serve these summer treats, but a plum cake is almost as easy. I use a recipe first published in the New York Times in 1982. It goes together easily, bakes for about an hour, and disappears so quickly that I make one every few days this time of year. It makes a lovely dinner dessert but is also great for breakfast or lunch.

Plum Torte

Original Plum Torte

  • ¾ 
cup sugar
  • ½ 
cup unsalted butter
  • 1 cup unbleached flour, sifted
  • 1 
teaspoon baking powder
  • Pinch of salt (optional)
  • 2 eggs
  • 24halves pitted purple plums (or enough to cover the top of the cake closely spaced)
  • Sugar, lemon juice and cinnamon for topping
  1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees.
  2. Cream the sugar and butter in a bowl. Add the flour, baking powder, salt and eggs and beat well.
  3. Spoon the batter into a spring form of 8, 9 or 10 inches. Place the plum halves skin side up on top of the batter. Sprinkle lightly with sugar and lemon juice, depending on the sweetness of the fruit. Sprinkle with (about) 1 teaspoon of cinnamon, depending on how much you like cinnamon.
  4. Bake one hour, approximately. Remove and cool; refrigerate or freeze if desired. Or cool to lukewarm and serve plain or with whipped cream.
  5. To serve a torte that was frozen, defrost and reheat it briefly at 300 degrees.

I like this torte plain but for really special occasions I will double the plum experience and make plum ice cream. Years ago my friend Kathy told me about the plum ice cream she was making from a recipe in David Lebovitz’s The Perfect Scoop (2007). I bought the book for my husband and we started making this and many other amazing ice creams following Lebovitz’s excellent and imaginative recipes.

This particular recipe couldn’t be easier and the flavor, texture and color are perfect. Plums, sugar, cream and a bit of kirsch are the only ingredients. We use a Cuisinart ice cream maker that is easy to use and to clean.

Plum ice cream

David Lebovitz’s Plum Ice Cream

 Makes 1 Quart

 1 pound plums 

⅓ cup water

¾ cup plus 2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup heavy cream

½ teaspoon kirsch

 Halve and pit the plums, cut them into 8ths and put them in a medium saucepan with the water. Cover and cook over medium heat, stirring occasionally, until tender, about 8 minutes. Remove from heat and stir in the sugar until dissolved. Let cool to room temperature.

 Once cool, puree in a blender or food processor with the cream and kirsch until smooth.

Chill thoroughly, then freeze in your ice cream maker according to the manufacturer’s instructions.

Though some in this household might disagree, we can really eat only so much cake and ice cream. For the rest of the plums ripening in the pantry, I’ve found that while drying plums is easy even with the long drying time in the dehydrator, the quickest way for me to preserve plums is to cut them in half, remove the pits, arrange them closely, skin side down, on parchment paper-lined sheet plans and roast them at 300 degrees for about an hour.Plums roasted

At this point, they’ve softened and the juices have concentrated. When they are completely cool, I slide them into pint canning jars, screw on lids and freeze them. Thawed months from now, they are delicious with yogurt and granola. They aren’t the same as a ripe, fresh plum, but on a dark winter morning they bring back welcome memories of warm summer days.

PS: see Karen’s comment about skin-side up or skin-side down in the Original Plum Torte.  I’ve been doing skin-side down lately as in the photo above.  Here’s a version of skin side up.  Pretty too!  Thanks for noticing Karen!

Plum torte skin side up

 

 

 

 

Spring Turnip Dinners

We’ve been enjoying delicious spring turnips from the kitchen garden for the past two weeks. The seeds I planted May 1st provided 1-inch turnips on May 29th and we’ve been harvesting increasingly larger turnips, up to an inch-and-a-half diameter, since then. There’s one more meal left in these rows; then I’ll need to wait a few days for turnips from the seeds I planted in mid-May. In early July we’ll have turnips from a June 1st planting. Succession planting is a great way to extend the harvest of these spring treats.

Turnip closeup

Oasis is the quick-growing variety I plant, my favorite ever since learning about these tender spring turnips five years ago. They grow almost as quickly as radishes, and while they are tasty raw like a radish, I have most fun roasting them, sautéing their leaves and combining both with other flavors and textures.

One night last week I harvested half a dozen turnips, their greens and a head of cauliflower. With some already-cooked Drabo cannellini beans leftover from the night before, I began putting together a meal. After cutting off and setting aside the greens, I quartered the turnips and tossed them and some cauliflower pieces in olive oil, sprinkled on a bit of salt and I set them in a 425-degree oven to roast.

Spring turnip greens raw

Spring turnips and cauliflower

While they cooked, I put half a cup of red quinoa in boiling water and set the timer for eleven minutes. While the quinoa simmered, I sautéed the turnip greens in olive oil, garlic and red pepper flakes; when they were almost wilted, I added the beans and some yellow raisins.

Spring turnip greens saute

The greens and beans were ready just as it was time to drain the quinoa, and a few minutes after that the turnips and cauliflower were softly caramelized and ready to eat. Arranged around the plate, these four pieces made a pretty picture and an even better meal.

spring turnip dinner

We sampled individual parts, then tried combinations, quinoa and greens, greens and turnips, greens and cauliflower, cauliflower and quinoa, gradually melding all the flavors and textures together into a wonderfully satisfying spring meal. Summer food is on the horizon, but for now it’s hard to imagine anything tastier than spring turnips.

Kale Lessons

I’ve always planted kale in mid-to-late July and watched the plants grow into robust, dark green towers of kale by October. But I always waited to harvest any until the plants went through a frosty night or two and the leaves became deliciously sweet. The leaves before the frost seemed thin and almost bitter compared to the sturdy, sweet, post-frost leaves.

Over this past late fall and early winter, however, kale plants, clusters and singles, volunteered in various spots throughout the garden, along edges of beds where seeds had dropped and through cover crops from seeds that must have survived the compost heat.  Curious about how they’d taste, I let them mature. Kale volunteers

Kale volunteerMy prejudice for July-planted, fall frost-sweetened kale kept my expectations low but I’ve been amazed by how succulent and sweet these later appearing, later maturing kale leaves are. The only frost they got in this past year’s mild winter was when they were quite small plants.

The July-planted kale, which in its last weeks of early May growth gave us many meals of delicious flower buds, is finally in the compost bin but the volunteer kale plants are still providing welcome salads and even some flower buds. And more volunteers have sprouted here and there in the past few weeks. I’ll let them mature too and see how they taste as they grow in the frost-free summer. And if they taste as good as I’m hoping they will, I’ll change my kale planting plan for the year ahead to try to mimic what volunteer seeds and weather patterns have taught me. We may end up eating kale year-round instead of only from October to May.

Kitchen gardener’s habits need to be nudged in new directions now and then, prejudices and rules challenged. With our warming climate, kale may be the first of many vegetables that will cause me to rethink planting calendars and favorite varieties. I’ll pay closer attention.