Pumpkin Polenta

In my defense, I made this creamy, starchy, and comforting delight back in the days of 2011, before the New Year health kick charged in for its month-long (maybe two) appearance. However, in my admittance I had Chipotle, movie theatre popcorn, and chocolate covered toffee for lunch yesterday so I remain, as your first impression of this post led you to believe, guilty as charged.

This polenta is just something I could not pass up. I looked so inviting on this blog, bright orange from a hefty dose of pumpkin (and you know how much I love my pumpkin and orange foods), its flavored heightened with a touch of paprika, cayenne, and nutmeg. It’s sprinkled with a handful or two of aged cheddar cheese, and intensified with a scattering of pork.

The swelled grains of cornmeal, turned into indulgent creaminess by the mere activations of its starches, serves at a perfect nest for spicy chorizo meatballs, dark and crusted on the outside. It slid slowly into the stomach leaving a hot path along the esophagus and sat like warm steamy bath in my stomach. Its something you eat on a biting cold night. It’s also great for people who are a little upset. It has that calming tendency yet rejuvenation from the gentle heat that kicks in a while after the initial taste.

I know you are probably researching salad recipes right now and other low-carb, lean-protein, veg-rich dishes. I saw the health craze every year when I headed back to college: the salad bar line was a little longer than normal, the gyms looked like a war zone after an epic battle for the elliptical machine, and every girl dresses as if she is ready to work out at the drop of a hat (oh wait, they do that year-round). But I ask you to still consider a little polenta indulgence. In fact, the more I think about it, the actual polenta part of this recipe (meatballs aside) is really not to bad in the health department. It has plenty of protein on its own and is crammed with calcium and beta rich pumpkin. Plus, with all of the add-ins and flavorings, you end up with something quite a bit more advanced than your standard polenta. Pair it with a succulent sauté of mushrooms and dark kale and I think you can end you day relatively guilt free yet filled with warming and rich food.

Pumpkin Polenta
serves 4 as a main adapted slightly from Evil Shenanigans

I’m not including the meatball recipe because it is simply ground chorizo mixed with a little onion and breadcrumbs, formed into meatballs and cooked in a frying pan until done. And it’s really more of a suggestion. You could also sprinkle over some bacon or like I said, some sautéed leafy greens or even some warmed black beans. This also reheats nicely.*

1 Tbs. olive oil
1 Tbs. butter
½ onion, finely chopped
1 garlic glove, minced
¼ tsp. cayenne pepper
½ tsp. paprika
½ tsp. salt
¼ tsp. nutmeg
1 can pumpkin puree
1 cup milk
3 cups good-quality chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup polenta
¾-1 cup shredded aged cheddar cheese
2 Tbs. cream cheese

Heat the oven to 325 degrees. In a Dutch oven or an ovenproof pot with a lid, heat the oil and butter over a medium heat. Add the onion and cook for about 2 minutes until softened. Add the garlic, cayenne, paprika, salt, and nutmeg. Stir and continue to cook for another minute. Add the pumpkin puree and mix to combine. Cook for about 3-4 minutes, stirring frequently, until the pumpkin is slightly toasted.

Whisk in the milk and the broth, breaking any lumps in the pumpkin mixture, until smooth. Bring the mixture to a boil. Once boiling, remove from the heat and slowly pour in the polenta, whisking constantly. Once added, give the mixture a final stir, cover with the lid and place in the oven for 30 minutes. Stir every ten minutes, adding more broth, milk, or water if it starts to look dry.

Meanwhile, cook any additions you plan to eat with your polenta, whether it be chorizo meatballs, bacon, or vegetable/beans.

When the polenta is finished cooking, remove from the oven and add the grated cheese and the cream cheese. Stir until completely combined and add any more liquids if necessary until you reach you desired consistency. Serve immediately.

*Pour any excess into a glass or ceramic dish, spread even, and refrigerate. To prepare leftovers, you can cut the set polenta into wedges and pan-fry them or mash a portion of it in a bowl into fine crumbles, add some water and/or milk and microwave for about 2 minutes, stirring vigorously every 30 seconds, until creamy and hot.

The Art of Simplicity

I find that I like to make things complex with my cooking. Maybe it’s for the sake of a little challenge, making me feel like I’m furthering my knowledge or something. Sure, why not make the elaborate curry that requires me to spend ridiculous amounts of money on spices from a specialty food market? Sound like fun! Or, macaroons? Sure. Who doesn’t love tediously piping little circles of egg whites onto parchment? Even the other day my mom told me, “Oh Katie, you’re such a Martha.” I took it as a compliment.

But whatever the reason for this extravagance, I always tend to stray from the straight path, opting for rocky, muddy, and treacherous road instead. The flair, unfortunately, doesn’t always work in my best interest. Like the time I tried to make my family a vegetarian molé chili; “you’ll love it, the secret ingredient is chocolate!” And when we sat down to bowls of a substance totally indistinguishable from garbage sludge, I had to admit defeat. Or the time I attempted making treacle tart to bring to a British themed dinner, only to end up sealing the teeth together of all who ate the cement-like toffee. Their pained but polite words of approval settled uncomfortably in my stomach.

As much I do enjoy culinary adventuresome, I still can’t deny comfort in simplicity. The food that I post here are my weekend experiments. What I eat on a normal basis is more along the line of cheese and crackers or yogurt and granola or, my new strange but favorite fixation, egg salad sandwiches. To me, taking very few ingredients and combining them in ways that result in powerfully flavored dishes is almost as much of a challenge as making those extravagant meals. I like this challenge too and through trial and error, I’ve discovered that there are keys to great simplicity in food.

First, successful simplicity requires good ingredients. Simple food does not have extra fluff to mask anything under par. There are only few components and those need to be top notch to provide heightened and optimal flavor.

Also, there needs to be contrast. This is what turns ordinary and bland into something that gets people excited. Simple does not have to be boring at all. When two or three ingredients that are different yet complementary, not only in flavor but texture, come together, it causes all senses to stimulate at once making for a memorable eating experience. And finally, it needs to be cooked with love and care, the ingredient that makes a difference in all cooking.

So one rainy and cold evening a few weeks ago I made grilled cheese, the ultimate comfort food, but with a twist. I cut up thick slices of ricotta bread from the farmers market. I crammed the inside with slabs of creamy Fontina cheese, crispy organic bacon, and slices of just-underripe local pears. I gave the bread a lovely swipe of butter and let it spend some time getting hot and melty in the pan.

Though unconventional it worked. The sweet pears were a perfect match to the salty bacon and the Fontina, though mild, enveloped all in a buttery blanket of richness. It was the bread that really made this sandwich. It crisped up beautifully because of the high butterfat content and its milky and slightly tangy notes rounded out the whole package. I enjoyed it alone, a sublime retreat, that lasted mere minutes but felt like hours in food divinity. Each bite was like music as my teeth moved through layers of resounding crunch. In secluded gluttony, I licked my buttery fingers unashamedly for I had finally truly felt like I discovered the art of simplicity. Four ingredients (five if you count butter) and one amazing sandwich.

Fall Grilled Cheese
serves 1

All I can say about this is go all out. No skimping on this recipe please and savor it for every fatty and cheesy bite its worth. You can always work out later.

Ricotta bread (brioche, challah, or white country bread works too)
Fontina cheese, as much as you feel meets your standards of cheesiness
3 slices of bacon
1 slightly underripe pear

Heat a frying pan to medium and lay down the slices of bacon. Cook until crisp and drain on paper towels. Wipe out the pan and set aside for later.

As the bacon cooks, prepare the other ingredients. Slice two thick pieces of the bread and then slice as much cheese as you like. Slice the pear into quarters and then cut thin pieces from each of these. You will only need about half so you can eat the remaining slices as a snack.

To assemble lay about ¾ of the cheese on one piece of bread. Place the pears on top and them the bacon. Dot the remaining cheese on top of the bacon so it melts to the other piece of bread and holds the sandwich together. Lay the remaining piece of bread on top. Generously butter the outside of the sandwich.

Get a pan on medium heat and also turn the oven to about 400 degrees. Cook the sandwich in the pan for about 2 minutes a side, pressing down occasionally and constantly checking to make sure you don’t burn anything. Once both sides are golden brown and crispy, transfer the pan to the oven for about 2 minutes to let the cheese melt. Remove, cut any way you like, and enjoy.