Pantry cooking month: Polenta

Fried polenta with warm tomato sauce. Comfort food that’s a tiny bit fancy.

Two things you may or may not know about me:

  1. When I have money, I tend to buy groceries. Not clothes, not gadgets, not iPads. Food. That’s my luxury spending, my crisis spending, my comfort spending, my impulse spending.  Thing is, we’re only two people here, though we often share our food with the three who live next door (mom, uncle, kid). We cannot possibly eat everything in the house before some of it goes bad unless I’m super-good about keeping my shopping to a minimum. Since my debt-elimination project began, though, I’ve been a little indulgent buying groceries, because they’re on the needs list, and therefore okay to buy. Theoretically. I gotta work on that.
  2. I am a supertaster. This means I can taste some flavors strongly even when they’re faint. A tinytiny amount of almond extract makes a dish inedible for me. I can taste minute amounts of artificial sweetener. An eighth of a teaspoon of five-spice powder (which is evil to my tastebuds. Evil!) makes the whole dish horrifying. And I can tell when food has gone rancid wayyyyyy before anyone else in my family notices it.

What I am about to say next will gross out some of you, and I don’t blame you.

So in cooking down the pantry, I’m going to need to use up a LOT of grains. Because there are so many, though, some of them tend to go off before I use them. I tossed the brown rice –whoof! it was clearly rancid. But the cornmeal? It’s only almost off. So, um, don’t hate me. I made some polenta from some of it anyway, because I knew my family wouldn’t even notice, and they like fried polenta.

I can’t believe I’m telling you this.

Anyway, use good, fresh cornmeal for this, not months-old cornmeal that’s about a week away from turning. Unless, you know, you’re into that.

white plate of polenta slices with tomato sauce on them, fork is on the plate

I did throw out the rest of the cornmeal, partly from guilt and partly because I know that the next time I open it up, it won’t be fit to use, not even for regular people with normal tastebuds.

And I promise that even though my mother loved this polenta SO MUCH, I will love my family enough not to serve them food I think is not really fit to eat, ever again.

Garlic-pepper Fried Polenta with warm tomato sauce
Author: 
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 4-6 servings
 
This polenta is good as a porridge or fried, but my family likes it fried best
Ingredients
For the polenta
  • 1 cup cornmeal, any kind
  • 3 to 4 cups water (3 cups makes the process faster; 4 cups makes the mixture a bit softer, but takes longer)
  • 1 tsp salt
  • 3-4 tbsp butter
  • ½ to 1 tsp white peppercorns, to taste (or ¼ to ½ tsp ground white pepper, to taste)
  • 1 clove garlic
  • a little olive oil if you're going to fry it later
For the sauce
  • 1-2 tbsp olive oil
  • ½ small onion, diced finely
  • 1 clove garlic, minced
  • 1 can diced tomatoes (I used tomatoes with oregano and basil already in them; if you use plain, add ½ tsp each dried basil and oregano, if you want)
  • water as needed
Instructions
Polenta
  1. In a mortar and pestle, pound peppercorns and garlic together until you get a thick but pretty finely crushed paste. Set aside. Alternatively, you can just use ground pepper and add a crushed garlic clove.
  2. Bring water and salt to boil in small saucepan
  3. Slowly pour in cornmeal while stirring constantly
  4. Once corn mixture returns to a boil, turn heat down to medium-low and stir almost constantly until it's very thick and bubbly
  5. Remove from heat and stir in butter and pepper-garlic paste. Check seasoning and add salt if necessary.
  6. At this point, the polenta is ready to eat by itself, or you can fry it up later. If you're going to do that, put it into a container in the fridge for at least a couple of hours, until it's set enough to slice.
Sauce
  1. In a small skillet or saucepan, fry the onions in olive oil on medium heat until translucent. Add the garlic and saute another minute.
  2. Add tomatoes and herbs if using.
  3. Cook, stirring often, 20-30 minutes, until tomatoes are very soft. You will probably have to add water from time to time to keep the mixture from completely drying out and burning, but you don't want the sauce too wet in the end. It should be chunky and only barely moist.
  4. I prefer this sauce warm, but not hot, so I usually put it in the fridge until the fried polenta is ready, and then just warm it up for a second off the heat in the hot pan after the polenta is done.
For the fried polenta
  1. Slice the polenta into ½-inch slices and fry in a teaspoon of olive oil in a nonstick skillet. Fry for a few minutes on each side, until it starts to get brown and crisp. Serve hot with tomato sauce poured over it.

 

 

Day three and a promise

Day 3 of the cleanse brings a promise from me.

I promise to post about something else as soon as:

1) This cleanse thing is over; OR

2) I have a day where I forget to take photos; OR

3) I have a day in which I eat all stuff I’ve already posted about.

But in the meanwhile, here’s the food for day 3 of the cleanse.

Breakfast: Fried O’Brien potatoes, homemade ketchup, watermelon, and V-8

breakfast

Lunch: Big salad with homemade sesame dressing (mixed up sesame oil, rice vinegar, agave nectar, grated fresh ginger, wheat-free tamari, and grated garlic to taste), topped with sesame salt; fresh cherries

Salad and cherries

Snacks: Nuts, seasoned seaweed, and Oh, so much fruit. More than I can show you here, but among the bounty was more watermelon. Also, white peaches so ripe it’s making my mouth water to tell you about them. And more cherries. And so on. Plus a latte made with decaf espresso and homemade soymilk. (The soymilk maker is still in the testing phase. I’m working on it.)

peaches, watermelon, and soy latte

Dinner: Tamale pie. The plan was for chili, but I was waffling on finding a good vegan, gluten-free cornbread, and James suggested I just make some more polenta, add olives to the chili, and make tamale pie. Those of you who’ve been around a while know that James is big on suggesting yummy and time-consuming things for me to make, so I was happy to oblige with this relatively quick and easy dish.

Tamale pie

I also added some olive oil and a fair bit of garlic and nutritional yeast to the polenta before pouring it over the chili (which I dished into the baking dish with a slotted spoon so it wouldn’t be too soupy). The chili is based on the Moosewood recipe that Susan V. adapts here, but I left out the bulgur and used some olive oil in the preparation.

So there it is. There’ll be more Mom Food when this is over. I promise!

“Cleanse” day 2

When you hear “vegan and gluten-free,” do you feel a pall of dullness wash over you? Let me show you it doesn’t have to be that way!

When I’m doing one of these fun/silly diet challenges (not “diet” in the sense of weight-loss, which I’m not into, but “diet” as in “what I eat”), the best time to do them is a time like this month, when I’m working at home and have all the time in the world to cook. You can expect to see lots of posts this month; brace yourselves.

Today’s menu:

Breakfast: Tofu scramble; fried O’Brien potatoes; agave ketchup (recipe below)

tofu scramble and O'Brien potatoes

Morning snack: Figs and raspberries

figs and raspberries

Lunch: Salad with vinaigrette (olive oil, cider vinegar, a touch of agave nectar)

salad plates

Afternoon snack: guacamole and chips (James made the guacamole with onions, jalapenos, and garlic. He asked me if I wanted him to clean it up for photos, but I said Nah, we’re just gonna sit and watch movies with it; this is how it looks.)

guacamole and chips

Dinner: Polenta with wild mushrooms. The morels didn’t look good, so I got porcini, chanterelles, and baby buttons. Cooked down with onion, garlic, olive oil, salt, pepper. Served over fried polenta sticks. I used this method, but left out the animal products and added olive oil and a little bit of nutritional yeast for “cheesiness.”

polenta and mushrooms with broccoli on the side

These photos are by way of saying that even if there’s a food you don’t or can’t eat, you don’t have to sacrifice abundance. I don’t believe in deprivation, and there’s no reason a vegan, gluten-free life has to be dull and drab.

Oh, and here’s the recipe for the ketchup. Let me know if you improve on it. I love ketchup!

Agave Ketchup
Author: 
Recipe type: Condiment
 
The texture isn't the same as bottled ketchup, but this version is free of white/refined sugar, and uses gluten-free apple cider vinegar. You can actually leave the agave out, but then the ketchup will be (obviously) less sweet.
Ingredients
  • 1 small can (6 oz.) tomato paste (I used organic, because the only ingredient is tomatoes)
  • 1 tablespoon apple cider vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon amber agave nectar, optional
  • ¼ teaspoon salt
  • ¼ teaspoon finely ground black pepper
  • 2-4 tablespoons water
Instructions
  1. Mix everything but the water, then add the water a tablespoon at a time until the ketchup is the consistency you want. Makes about a cup of ketchup.

 

Mertie’s Mondays: Chowdah

Chowdah!

Growing up in Marblehead as I did, fish and seafood were omnipresent in our lives. The Town was still a centre for fishing, and the wharf at the foot of State Street still landed catches of fish every day. Just at the foot of the street stood McClain’s Fish Market. When Mom wanted good fish, she would send us there. Like all good fish markets, it smelled nautical but not fishy. There were a couple of shelves with jars of tartar sauce and the like, but the fish counter at the rear of the store was the centre of attention.

There are three kinds of New England-style chowder: fish, clam, and corn. The chowder I made last night was corn chowder, but I think that people need to know how to make all three.

In preparation, let me state right now that, although it’s not true that the State of Maine once made it illegal to call any soup with tomatoes in it a “chowder”, my Mom never made a fish, corn, or clam soup with tomatoes. While Manhattan “clam chowder” may be tasty, I don’t consider it a chowder, properly speaking.

I will start out with corn chowder. If you make it without salt pork, it is vegetarian. It’s also amazingly filling, and very tasty.

Corn Chowder
Corn chowdah!

To start, put around two tablespoons of butter into a large pot. When it’s melted, dump in three medium onions, chopped.

Does anyone else find chopping onions a chore? I used to, but when I discovered Julia Child’s method of chopping onions, I stopped thinking of chopping onions as a chore and found it a breeze. Here’s how.

Peel the onion, and cut in half lengthways through the root and the top. Lay one half cut side down on the chopping board. Slice it lengthways nearly to the root end, but not quite all the way. Then carefully cut the onion half horizontally one or two times. Finally, slice the onion from the stem end, and the onion will just fall into dice, naturally. When you’ve gotten as close to your fingers as you want, place the end down on the cutting board and chop it a few times. Hey presto, a diced onion.

Now put your chopped onion into the pot and sauté it until translucent. Meanwhile, peel and cut your potatoes. Cut them lengthways, then cut each half into halves again. Finally, cut each quarter into 1/4″ slices. Use around 5 medium to large potatoes. As much as you might be tempted to leave the skins on, don’t! Chowder requires peeled potatoes for perfection.

Put the potatoes into the pot and immediately pour water in to cover them. No more than that, please! Add salt, pepper, and some thyme (a tablespoon is too much but a teaspoon may not be enough—use your discretion). Remember that the potatoes will absorb salt so you may want to add more at this stage or make sure that your table has a full salt grinder on it. Bring to a boil then turn the heat down, and simmer. Open three cans of corn kernels. You could use fresh, if you have the patience to cut the kernels off the cobs, but I never have had that much patience. Add them to the pot, cover. and simmer until the potatoes are cooked through.

Now there are two (at least) schools of chowdercookery. The first one only requires full-fat milk, and the other requires some sort of thickener. The people who make canned New England clam chowder are of the second school, but it often tastes floury to me, not milky. My Mom was of the first school, so her recipe concludes with simply adding full-fat milk to the chowder, as much as you like, and stirring it in and heating it through. You will want the chowder to have a milky-white colour but not caused by as much milk as there is water in the pot. Use your discretion and your taste.

I decided to thicken our corn chowder with a roux. If you’ve been following my posts, you know how to make a roux. Melt butter in a shallow fry pan, then stir tablespoons of flour into the butter and stir them around until the butter/flour mixture is a paste. Spoon the roux into the chowder before you put the milk in. Then bring the fire up a bit and stir the roux into the chowder until it’s disappeared. Then add the milk. Stir the chowder until it’s thickened. It will not be as thick as canned chowder is, but it will be thicker than liquid milk.

Now, for the non-vegetarians and the piscivores (love that word, even if I don’t much care for fish), there is clam and fish chowder. The beginning and end of the recipes are different; the middle is the same.

Start off with a pound of salt pork, cut into slivers. The salt pork should be fatty and not lean. Place the salt pork into your pot and, over a relatively slow fire, try the pork until the fat has bled out of it and the pork is crisp. Remove the pork with a slotted spoon and, if you have no worries about cholesterol, drain it onto a paper towel and offer it as an appetiser. It’ll be crisp, oily, salty, and kind of like pork scratchings. We used to love it, but with the health concerns of today I wouldn’t dare eat it. I would discard it.

Now sauté the onions in the fat from the pork, and follow the recipe above with potatoes and water and seasonings.

For clam chowder, open around four small cans of Snow’s Minced Clams. No other will do. Chuck the clams and the liquid into the chowder. I suppose that if you had them, whole clams cut up might be OK. Of course, you wouldn’t get the clam liquid in that, and you’d have to deal with chopping up the clams, which I personally don’t feel comfortable doing. There are parts of clams that you should eat, and some that you shouldn’t, and I can’t tell them apart. My Mom never used whole clams so I don’t either.

Now follow the rest of the recipe by adding milk and heating it through. Thicken it if you want in the same way as I wrote above.

Fish chowder is different again. Follow the clam chowder recipe until you get to chucking in the clams. Cut several boneless haddock fillets into small pieces, and put them in the simmering chowder. They should turn white in around 5 minutes or so, which means they are poached and ready. Add the milk, heat it through, and serve immediately.

If you can get them, common crackers are the accompaniment of choice to chowders. The Vermont Country Store sells them. I have a great friend, Sue, in Connecticut, who sends me a CARE package from time to time, in which there is a box of common crackers. They were originally baked to provide carbohydrates to sailors, and used to be packed into barrels on the ship. If they remained dry, they did not spoil and were perfect for long sea voyages. Split a few crackers and put some halves into each bowl. As the chowder is probably going to be salty enough, it’s less desirable to use saltines or oyster crackers. But, your mileage may vary, so add whatever you like.

My brother and sister, along with me, do not like fish very much. We ate too much of it when we were young, so we don’t choose to eat it now. However, my Dad loved fish chowder, and when he was in the nursing home from 2001-2003, fish chowder was never on the menu. So, when I returned to Marblehead from England, I would cook fish chowder and bring him a bowl of it when I visited. No matter whether he’d just eaten or not, he’d ask me to heat it up for him. I’d bring common crackers with me, and he’d split a couple, put them in the bowl, and eat with relish. He is no longer with us, but I’ll always remember him when I make a pot of chowder. It was my gift to him, and I think he liked it better than any other gift I could have brought him.

Corn Fritters and Frugality

Little golden balls of fried goodness. How could that be wrong?

Part of focusing on frugality, for me, is finding ways to make treat foods that don’t cost much. I’d much rather make my own hummus, for instance, than do without it just because it’s expensive.

Among the small handful of things that has followed me from home to home as I’ve moved over the last thirty or so years is a little book by Jo Ann York called How I Feed My Family on $16 a Week (And Have Meat, Fish, or Poultry on the Table Every Night). It’s long out of print, so I’m not giving you a Powell’s link, but this little gem from the mid-’70s, while hopelessly out of date pricewise, has wonderful tips for keeping things inexpensive and interesting. If you can find a used copy, grab it. It’s a fun read.

fritters

The oil-stained page in this book, the page that it opens to automatically, is York’s corn fritter recipe. I have been making these, in fat times and lean, for around thirty years, and of course, I’ve fiddled with it here and there.

You won’t see much deep-fried food on this blog, and in fact, the original recipe calls for pan-frying these, which is how I usually do it, but yesterday, I got in the mood to have nice, deep-fried fritters, so I went for it. Normally, though, shallow frying is easier, cheaper, and results in delicious fritters, so the cute factor probably isn’t worth the effort.

I have a weird sickness. I only deep-fry a couple times a year, if that, but when I do, when I’m done frying whatever I’m frying, I get this urge to fry up everything else in the house. I usually start with potatoes if we have them, and then progress to other stuff: yesterday, I ended up doing russet potatoes, sweet potatoes, and a couple hot dogs just for fun. It’s silly, but my life is full of such silliness.

Below the corn fritter recipe, which I’ve adapted from York’s over the years, are a few variations I made yesterday: corn-and-onion, apple, and banana. For the apple fritters, I made a sweet glaze, and the recipe for that, such as it is, is there, too. Each batch makes a dozen or so largeish fritters; two is a good-sized serving, so say six servings per batch.

Corn Fritters
Adapted from Jo Ann York’s How I Feed My Family on $16 a Week

1 (15-oz.) can whole-kernel corn, or equivalent amount fresh or thawed corn

Dry ingredients:
1 cup flour
1 teaspoon baking powder
1 teaspoon sugar
1/2 teaspoon salt

Wet ingredients:
1 egg, beaten
1/2 cup milk

If you’ll be deep-frying these, start a quart or so of oil heating in a medium soup pot (or other frying vessel) on medium-high heat. You’re shooting for around 350F for the temperature, but I don’t usually use a thermometer; I just drop a test fritter in when I think it’s hot enough, and if it sizzles immediately without burning too quickly, it’s just right. If you’re shallow-frying, you’ll need a large skillet and a little bit of oil, probably 1/2 cup or so, but don’t pre-heat these.

Mix together dry ingredients in a medium mixing bowl. Mix together wet ingredients in a small bowl. Add the wet to the dry and stir until all the lumps are out. Add corn and stir well.

If deep-frying, drop by rounded tablespoons into hot oil. Work in small enough batches that you don’t crowd the cooking oil. After a few minutes, flip the fritters and cook the other side. Flip again if necessary — both sides should be nicely browned. Remove from oil and place on a rack or a stack of folded paper towels. Salt to taste immediately. Serve hot or warm.

If shallow-frying, heat skillet over medium-high heat. Add 1/4 cup or so of oil, until there’s a quarter-inch-or-so layer of oil in your pan. Drop fritters by rounded tablespoons into the oil. Cook for a few minutes on each side, until browned, turning once. Remove to rack or plate and salt to taste immediately. Repeat with remaining fritter batter, adding a little oil for each batch if necessary. Serve hot or warm.

Variations:

Corn-onion Fritters

Add 1/2 to 1 cup finely minced onions to the batter with the corn. Proceed as directed.

Apple Fritters

Instead of corn, use a large apple, peeled and diced into fairly small pieces. Add 1 teaspoon cinnamon to the dry ingredients. Don’t salt the fritters. If desired, glaze with the sugar glaze that follows.

Sugar Glaze

Prepare a cooling station by placing a cooling rack over a cookie sheet covered with something to catch the drips. Stir 2 tablespoons of milk into 2 cups of powdered sugar. Glaze should have a just-pourable, syrupy consistency, so add more milk or sugar, a tiny bit at a time, until that’s the result. When you remove the fritters from the oil, place them on a plate, then drop one at a time, still hot, into the glaze. Turn it over to make sure it gets glazed on both sides, then remove from glaze and cool on rack until the fritter cools and the glaze has begun to harden. Repeat with remaining fritters.

Banana Fritters

Instead of corn, use 2 bananas, sliced or chopped. If desired, add a little cinnamon (1/2 teaspoon or so) to the dry ingredients. Don’t salt the fritters. These are sweet enough that we don’t use the glaze, but you can if you wish.

Price breakdown

Per batch:

Flour: .20
Other dry ingredients: Negligible
Egg: .10
Milk: .09
Corn: 1.00
Apple: .30
Bananas: .30
Onion: .10
Glaze: .90
Oil for frying (based on 1/2 cup for shallow frying and 1 quart for deep; if deep-frying, you don’t end up eating any more oil, but you have to figure out what to do with the remaining oil from the quart): 2.49 for deep-frying; .31 for shallow

Price per serving (2 fritters)

Corn: 28 cents shallow-fried, 64 cents deep-fried
Corn-onion: 30 cents shallow-fried, 66 cents deep-fried
Apple (with glaze): 32 cents / 68 cents
Banana (no glaze): 17 cents / 53 cents