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.

 

 

Pork loin dinner (sorry, no pics!)

Dinners with mom, for real

I’m finally settled in at Mom’s. Well, for now. We moved here in October, and we’re here for good, because it was becoming hard to be of any help from five hundred miles away. We are staying in her guest room, which we renovated first, while our apartment is being renovated. It is SO nice to be near her, both to offer some help, and just to be closer and hang out with her.

I’ve been doing most of the cooking for the four of us: me, Mom, James, and my Uncle Ed, who moved in a couple years ago when my aunt died. I’m trying to make dinners that are homey, interesting, and diverse, so that everyone enjoys them and I have lots of veggies to eat. Tonight’s was a big hit with everyone: Very juicy roasted pork loin, mashed potatoes, mushroom gravy, steamed carrots/squash, and a salad. Even better than the food was the feeling I was nurturing my family and having a good time doing it.

The roast was super-easy. Just rubbed it with olive oil and spices, then put it into a pan in a preheated 450F oven until my probe thermometer said 135F. Pulled it and let it rest a few minutes until it reached a safe 140F before slicing. Very good.

The gravy was also very easy:

1) Slice onions and mushrooms (however many you want) and take out a saute pan that will hold them all — but it doesn’t have to be a saute pan; you can use a big stockpot, even, if you have to
2) Put some butter (anywhere from a tablespoon to several) into the saute pan and heat the pan on medium until the butter melts
3) Add the onions and mushrooms to the butter, and sprinkle a little salt and pepper over the top. If you have it, now’s the time to add a teaspoon of garlic granules or a chopped garlic clove.
4) Let them cook on medium, stirring occasionally, until most of the liquid cooks away, then add just enough chicken stock or water or heavy cream to barely cover, and let it come back to the simmer. If you used chicken stock or water, you’ll have to do step 5. If heavy cream, just continue to heat until it thickens a bit and you’re done.
5) In a little bowl, mix a tablespoon or two of cornstarch with a tablespoon or two of cold water. Add to the simmering gravy and stir constantly until it returns to the boil. As thick as it is now is as thick as it will be, so if you need to do it again (to make it thicker) or add water/stock (to make it thinner), do that now.

Ah, bliss. (Pantry Cooking Project, Day 5)

First weekend post-graduation. So nice to just putter around my house and relax!

It’s my first weekend as a college graduate, and it’s off to a wonderful start. Slept in a little bit (until 8am! yay!) and then delighted in a gorgeous breakfast James made us: morel omelettes, potatoes, V-8, and tea. Later, scarfed an entire pint of raspberries all by myself. Life is good.

Today’s food:

The aforementioned breakfast.

breakfast

Lunch was veggie burgers with homemade mayo (you may recall we ran out of store-bought pretty early) and oven fries. James made lunch, as well. He’s a really useful guy to have around.

lunch

(I made the mayo from this recipe from the Frugal Farm Wife, Elise New.)

mayo

For dinner, I thought I’d try my hand at making flour tortillas using my friend Koko’s instructions, but I ended up feeling less ambitious than that, so I just made “Spanish rice” instead, and served it with refried beans and a tomato-and-avocado salad.

dinner

(I haven’t been mentioning snacks. Today’s snacks were the aforementioned raspberries, some milk and cookies, and a couple of white peaches. Ah, summer!)

Money spent on groceries today: $0 (project total $39.61)
Money spent in restaurants today: $0 (project total $37.76)
Food gifts received today: $0 (project total $17)
Things we’ve run out of: Mayonnaise, ice cream, hamburger patties, pork chops

Easy Spanish rice
Author: 
Recipe type: Side dish
Cuisine: Pseudo-Mexican
Prep time: 
Cook time: 
Total time: 
Serves: 6
 
Ingredients
  • 2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
  • 1 small onion, finely diced
  • 1 small bell pepper (any color), finely diced
  • 1½ cups medium- or long-grained white rice
  • 3 cloves finely chopped garlic
  • 2½ cups stock or water (I used a knorr beef tub in hot water)
  • 1 cup crushed tomatoes (or tomato sauce, or diced tomatoes with the liquid)
Instructions
  1. In a medium saucepan, heat oil over medium heat. Add the onion and cook, stirring often, for a couple of minutes, until softened. Add pepper and rice and cook and stir 5-8 minutes, until rice starts to turn light brown. Add the garlic and cook another minute.
  2. Add in broth and tomatoes. Stir and bring to a boil, then reduce heat to low and cover. Let simmer 20 minutes, then remove from heat and let stand for 5 minutes. Fluff rice with a fork and serve.

 

Mom’s kind of burger

Classic American burger.

Just a quick post today. The burgers I made would make my mom’s mouth water. Rare, lean beef. Toasted buns. Lots of veggies. (Cheese on James’s, but not on mine. I don’t usually do cheese on burgers.)

SO delicious. The kind of food I grew up on. Just a quarter pound of lean ground beef for each burger, sprinkled with salt/pepper/garlic and seared in a hot pan. Served with oven fries (from fresh russets, tossed in oil and roasted in a single layer in a 400°F oven) and plenty of ketchup to dip the fries in.

cheeseburger, oven fries, ketchup

Yum.

Cheesepalooza: Whole-milk Ricotta

Sorta-homemade lasagna with actually-homemade ricotta

I’ve been resisting making this post for a week and a half, for two reasons:

1) My photos didn’t come out all that well, and
2) My ricotta didn’t come out all that well. I couldn’t get it to set up properly. Cooking from the Market’s buttermilk ricotta is much more reliable for me, and the texture is right, while this was rubbery.

This is the first recipe in Cheesepalooza, though, and I have lots more chances to get it right. Besides, the resulting lasagna was ASTOUNDINGLY good, so hey, success!

Here’s the cheese draining on the faucet:

homemade ricotta draining

And here’s the lasagna after I ate all my dinner, went “Oh, shoot! I need a photo!” and put a little more on a plate to photograph.

sorta-homemade lasagna, one slice

It was so darn good, we managed to polish off that little more, too. SO good. And way easy, because I only sort of homemade it. You don’t even really need a recipe. What I did was bought four sheets of fresh pasta (two regular, two spinach) and layered them with jarred sauce, the homemade ricotta, and sliced whole-milk mozzarella. I ran out of mozzarella at the end (I used a pound), so I added some shredded cheddar on the top layer. This went together in maybe five minutes, and then I baked it at 350, covered, for about a half hour, then uncovered it and baked until everything was hot and bubbly. SO good!

And now here’s the worst pic of all. This doesn’t do this delicious thing justice, I promise you.

sorta-homemade lasagna

[Edit: Here’s a photo of an old batch of ricotta, made with the recipe linked above:]

ricotta in a strainer