Tuesday, December 8, 2009

In Praise of Polenta

I’m enamored with corn. Growing up in the Midwest, a cornfield was a life force to be reckoned with. It was my closest experience to the ocean until I came face to face with the Pacific. Corn grows at a very high rate of the photosynthesis. If you get really quiet you can hear it grow at night. It came to Northern Europe from the New World where it was held sacred. Cultures were built and fell to the maize gods. Corn syrup sweetens our processed foods and ethanol fuels our vehicles. Corn inspired a costume made long ago for a college project, complete with a green top hat and silk streamers. So much eulogizing, you get the picture.

So lately, my corn love has channeled into Polenta. Nothing like Rustic Italian peasant food to rustle up a food fantasy. When the kids were little and we lived close to the bone, we called it cornmeal mush and served it steamy on frosty mornings. Sometimes it was sweet, and sometimes it was salty, depending on the cash flow. The leftovers were pressed into oiled bread pans to chill until firm. Turning the pans over, we'd slice the rest to fry up for dinner. It was usually served with a brilliant ad hoc sauce, whatever we had.

These winter days, I like to make polenta pie. The corn crust accepts any flavor, sort of like pizza only corny. The crust is easy, the rest is up for grabs. Here’s my basic recipe and some ideas on how to pie it. Most fancy grocery stores carry Polenta, offering various grinds and recipes. Regular Cornmeal can always be found in the baking section of the supermarket.

Makes 2
9 inch pie shells.
Shells can be made ahead and frozen, or stored in fridge for 3 days.

First make the Polenta:
3 cups boiling water or stock
1 cup polenta
salt to taste
2 Tablespoons butter (or olive oil, sour cream, grated cheese) Play!

In a saucepan, bring water to boil, add salt. Using a whisk, gradually stir in the corn. Take your time with this or it will get lumpy. Add the butter. Keep stirring. It will start to plop all over.
The Trick to avoid burning! Place pan in a double boiler right after you stir in the corn (if you don’t have a double boiler try a saucepan in a skillet of water), lower heat and cook for 15 minutes or until thick, stirring frequently.
To form the Crusts:
Oil 2 pie pans. Divide and spread the hot polenta into the pans and drizzle with olive oil. Pat it out to the sides with your fingertips or the back of a spoon. Form a slight edge. Bake at 400 for 10 -15 minutes or until the top and bottom are slightly crispy. Remove, chill for later, or add toppings and return to the oven for another 10-15 minutes.

Look in your fridge is my signature recommendation. Polenta Pie is a great way to use up leftovers. Corn is the common denominator. Get creative. The world is your pie. Everything is optional.

We like to play with themes, letting the earthy sweetness and grain of the corn pull everything into culinary harmony. It sure wowed our Gourmet Dinner Club.
Greek - lamb meatballs, garlic, tomatoes, feta, olives
Mexican –beans, salsa, cheese
Italian – meats, roasted garlic and tomatoes, Romano/ Pecorino cheese
Del Mar –seafood, sour cream, spinach, artichoke hearts
Hungarian – goulash, smoked paprika

Easy Hangover Brunch… fill a polenta pie shell with whatever tomato sauce you can pull together in a pinch. The best is last night’s leftovers. Spoon out 4-6 little moats and crack an egg into each one, top with grated Parmesan cheese, bake at 400˚ for 10-15 minutes depending on how you like your eggs.

That Corn keeps growing in them hills,
just like Old Man River keeps flowing along.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

The Soup Must Go On

Chilly weather stirs the cook’s whimsy to soup. Of the 45 heirloom tomato varieties we so lovingly started last spring only a motley crew of color, shape, and texture remains, still tasting better than any tomato in the supermarket. Since mid August they have been plucked fresh, roasted, sauced, and dried. Plenty have been preserved and stored away like buried treasure. Time to move on… but a tomato is a terrible thing to waste.

My end of the season approach is to select and clean up anything with color and chuck it all in a pot with some sea salt. To equally salvage the stragglers in my pepper bed I roast them first and add them to the mix for another layer of flavor. It quickly cooks down to mush and then strained in my good old fashioned food mill to remove the skins and seeds. Next it simmers all night in an uncovered slow cooker. By morning the mixture has reduced and condensed the goodness. What’s left makes a hearty tomato soup base with a south of the border kick. This can be thinned out with chicken stock or thickened with a Béchamel (white) sauce. There are many options but the result is always warming comfort.

Here is a basic recipe. Do try this at home.

Cream of Tomato Soup.
Serves 4-6

2 or more garlic cloves, minced
¼ cup onion diced
2 cups fresh tomatoes, peeled and chopped (canned can do)
Fresh or dried basil to taste
Salt and pepper

In the bottom of your soup pot, sauté the garlic and onions in a little olive oil until clear, then add the tomatoes and cook down for 15 minutes. Puree small batches in a blender or food processor. Strain out the seeds if you like and return the blend to the soup pot. Keep on low heat and season.

Béchamel or White Sauce
2 tablespoons butter
1½-2 tablespoons all purpose flour
1 cup milk
Pinch of nutmeg

Using a medium sauce pan, melt the butter. Add and blend in the flour over a low heat 3-5 minutes. Slowly stir in the milk. Cook and stir the sauce with a wire whisk until thick and smooth.
THE TRICK TO AVOID CURDLING, first add ½ - 1 cup of the hot tomato stock to the white sauce, then gradually ladle the creamed mixture into the soup.

Serving Suggestions – top with crème fraiche, croutons, toast, pesto, grated cheese, bacon, fresh or crispy fried herbs, red onions or leeks.

Let your larder be your guide.

Wednesday, November 11, 2009

A Blog is Born

Greetings, this is my first blog ever.

After the loss of of job I didn't like when the economy tanked last year and some soul searching on what it all means, I followed my gut level leanings and planted lots of food. Organic since the "back to the land" movement of the 70's, my passions are gardening, cooking, and enjoying a good meal in or out with family, friends, and a good bottle of Pinot Noir. Recently, I began working with a chef to provide produce for an artists in residence program in our area. Since I already keep a record of my doings in the garden and kitchen, might well toss it out there and throw my hat in the foodie ring. Hopefully the muse will tag along for the ride.

With proper care, vegetables grow year round here in the Santa Cruz mountains of California. Having moved here from Washington State, this is my first attempt to grow through the winter. There is much to learn. Right now the garden is transitioning from summer to winter. Some die hard tomatoes still cling to the vine. The cooler weather toughens their skins but the flavor remains superb, promising some future mulling over soup. The brassicas (cabbages, broccoli, cauliflower) have been in the ground for over a month and despite a few battles with pests are standing tall. Today I'm starting greens, assorted mescluns, mache, chard, and chicories. Several varieties of carrots and beets are already planted and yeilding. There are more root vegetables to go in, turnips, parsnips and a quickie radish crop. But first the beds need to be cleaned up and amended. Out with the old, in with the new. The garden offers an abundance of real life lessons.

Chef and I have been going over seeds and preferences. We are excited about the possibilities of our working relationship. Both of us feel strongly that nothing replaces the taste of freshness and local is the way to go.

Enough already, time to go outside,

and yes my name really is Eden.