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.
I 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.”
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 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.
April Bloomfield’s recipes for Kale Purée and Kale Polenta:
Makes 1 generous cup
5 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 pound Tuscan or other kale, thick stems removed (about 1/2 pound after trimming)
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.
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
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.