The Basics V: Polenta

Thursday, July 13, 2006

When most of your food budget goes to glorious summer produce, eating well is still easy when you have a few inexpensive essentials on hand: grains such as couscous, rice or barley; cheese or tofu; and some cooked beans in your fridge. For the grains element, a few posts on a Southwestern gluten free blog recently reminded me of polenta's versatility. My first attempts to make polenta managed to be mushy and lumpy at the same time but still tasted great. I also came to appreciate how bright yellow polenta in a cast iron pan helps focus blurry first-thing-in-the-morning eyes and is a great backdrop for black beans or dark red kidney beans and veggies.

This slow cooker recipe helped somewhat with the textural problems. Slow cookers are usually associated with winter but are ideal for cooking in the summer, especially when they can sit outside.

1 part corn meal - I used a medium fine grind
4 parts water
Salt, 1-2 tsp
Slow cooker on low overnight

In the morning, shape polenta into a log or brick and store in the fridge to use as needed within one week.

Potato and spinach soup

At a certain point in summer, last year's potatoes are getting duller and duller while the baby delicate new potatoes are an occasional luxury. This soup is a good way to use older potatoes that are softening in storage. As for the greens, I used to view spinach as someone with many attractive qualities but one or two quirks that annoyed me so much (like that film on my teeth) that I was hesistant to make friends. We bonded mainly through this soup. You can also use other greens such as lettuce leaves, parsley, cilantro, or green onion tops - this is a good clean out the fridge soup.

Dice half a large onion (or 1 med) and a couple of stalks of celery and saute gently in a saucepan with some salt over medium heat for several minutes until soft. Add two cups of chicken stock and one large diced potato and boil til potato is cooked. Blend soup in two batches just til pureed - overblending will make the potatoes gummy. (My own preference is to leave it slightly chunky.) Also blend one cup of milk with three handfuls of spinach. Stir spinach and milk mixture into soup, taste for salt, and heat through with care; if you cook the soup too much after adding the spinach the attractive green colour will dull.

You can use skim or whole milk, canned evaporated milk, and soy though you could also leave it out if you don't have any of these on hand and just blend the leaves at the same time as the rest of the soup. Garnish with grated or crumbled cheese, if available.

See Sweetnicks' ARF/5-A-Day Tuesday roundup for more great ways to eat fruit and vegetables.

Fatouche with Dill

Sunday, July 02, 2006
This salad has been on my mind for a while but I was unwilling to spring for the mint. I contemplated making the salad without, but many of the recipes I looked at had assertive herbs in them like cilantro as well as the mint so it seemed like an essential element would be missing. Then I found dollar-a-bundle dill at the city centre market last weekend and thought it could be used in place of mint.


Like most salads, what will make this one stand out is really good ingredients. You need really red, fresh and redolent tomatoes and crisp cucumber and lettuce - summer means no excuses for bad salads. Dice a tomato and about 10 cm of cucumber and tear half a small head of romaine with your hands. Remove most of the seeds and juicy parts from the tomato because you don't want the salad too wet - these can be your appetizer. Lettuce should be dry too - I dried mine with a towel after spinning it. Mince three generous tablespoons of dill (or mint, if available).


This took a couple of tries to get right - most recipes I saw called for enough lemon juice to make the salad downright sour. I microwaved a clove of mashed raw garlic to tame its harshness, and also microwaved a quarter teaspoon of cumin to release the flavours. Then mixed these with a half lemon's worth of juice, a few shakes of salt and pepper, and added two tablespoons of olive oil.


First, a crouton rant: Croutons should be freshly made for the purpose; the little break-your-teeth bricks from the box or bulk bin should never be used. Bread croutons, such as for Caesar salad, ideally should be like little pieces of toast - crispy on the outside, soft on the inside, and still warm to contrast with the rest of the salad. Pita croutons should be fragrant and crisp.

The best pita bread I have found locally is also the least expensive, from Pita the Great. You get a package of six 100 g breads - fully double the size of most others - for a buck if you buy them at H&W Produce or at the nearby Pita the Great shop/restaurant. I have been known to devour a plain whole wheat pita for breakfast while returning from a grocery run - they are that good when fresh. To make the croutons (or really good pita chips), separate the pita breads into layers and brush with oil and salt. Can also use seasonings like oregano, thyme, and sesame seeds. Toast in a medium oven til just brown and break into pieces.


Toss chopped vegetables and a couple handfuls of croutons together and pour dressing carefully over the salad, turning it with a wooden spoon or your hands - you want to coat, not soak, the salad. Sprinkle with sumac powder, if available, and let sit for a minute so that the pita croutons can start getting soft. You want to eat the salad while the croutons are softening and before they get soggy. Can add cooked chickpeas, other beans, or cheese for protein if desired. Salad for one hungry person or a non main course for two.

Dirty Rice

Saturday, July 01, 2006
There are many variations of this south of the border dish. The common elements are rice and chicken giblets cooked together to make the rice look dirty. Most recipes include the signature cajun veg trio of onion, celery and green pepper; some use ground pork or sausage instead of livers and gizzards. For authenticity, flavour, and nutrient density I used the livers and gizzards even though using the same amount of plain ground pork would have been slightly cheaper. Also, I was cooking for a crowd so this recipe makes a lot. Probably I would leave out the gizzards next time; separating the edible muscular section from the rest of the organ was a bit too much work.

Simmer 1 lb chicken livers and gizzards in 1.5 l chicken stock until tender. (Can add a bay leaf if you have one handy.) Remove any scum from stock and remove meat and let cool slightly. Meanwhile, dice 1 head of celery, 1 large white onion, and two large sweet peppers. Chop cooled meat into small pieces. (For the livers, using fingers to remove the large veins and crumble the meat was easiest.) Sweat the vegetables for several mintues on med heat in a large dutch oven or stock pot until tender; then add the meat and three cups of rice. Pour in the stock; cover and simmer until rice is tender and liquid is absorbed. Taste for seasoning at this point and to make sure the rice is tender; add water if it is chewy and leave on a low simmer til it has softened. I added quite a bit of salt and pepper at this point and then left it a few minutes for the flavours to blend. Mixture should stick together, like dressing, and is very good scooped up in lettuce leaves.