The Polenta Post

Foodies are often polenta bullies. “You should have polenta in your pantry,” they’ll tell you. “I make polenta all the time,” they’ll brag. “I named my first born child Polenta,” they’ll confess. Foodies really love polenta.

And so tonight I adopted a “if you can’t beat them, join them” philosophy and fried up some polenta, which I presented on my new Ikea plate with fresh made Marcella Hazan tomato sauce. Check it out!

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Has this turned me from one of the polenta picked-upons to a polenta picker on-er? Click ahead to find out…

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Born to Roast (Root Vegetables, Roasted)

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Watching Iron Chef America tonight–Batali vs. Dufresne (of WD-50)–I recalled something that I read, heard or saw somewhere that goes a little like this: “Cooking is about technique. Once you learn the techniques, you can do anything.”

This philosophy makes tons of sense as you watch these iron chefs fly around their kitchens. They are in control because they know how to slice, to dice, to braise, to saute—it’s just a matter of prepping, performing, and plating. Mario Batali isn’t cocky, he’s a master of his craft. He knows his techniques and that’s all he needs to fry, frizzle and filet his opponents. The judges were swooning over his dishes and it’s simply a matter of knowing good techniques for making food taste good.

I know very few techniques. For the record: I can’t saute, I can’t flip an omelet, I can’t make a bernaise or a hollandaise sauce, I can’t roll pastry dough to save my life, and I can’t make Nancy Silverton’s savory caramel corn. In my defense, I can crack an egg with one hand (though almost always bits of shell get in), smack garlic efficiently to peel the skin, chop an onion, and sift dry ingredients (ok, ok, anyone can do that). Where I excel, however, is in the art of roasting. I am a brilliant roaster. I was born to roast.

Tonight I went to Whole Foods without a plan for dinner. There, perusing the vegetable aisle, I had the inspired idea to roast root vegetables. I purchased one white sweet potato, half a pre-cut butternut squash and two parsnips. I came home, peeled what needed to be peeled, cut everything into 1/2-inch squares and placed them on a cookie sheet. I tossed with olive oil, lots of kosher salt and pepper:

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Into a 415 oven it went for 1 hour (give or take a few minutes). I stirred it around a few times while it cooked and eventually I had this:

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On a scale from 1 to “totally awesome wow I can’t believe how good this tastes” this rates a 99. I love sweet potatoes and butternut squash on their own, but prepared like this–where everything caramelizes, gets crunchy on the outside and soft on the inside–it’s pure heaven on a plate.

I therefore declare that roasting is the best technique out of all the techniques you can learn for the home chef. It involves a hot oven, some slicing, some tossing and some seasoning. Anyone can do it. And you can probably roast anything. I don’t think there’s a vegetable in the produce section that wouldn’t taste good roasted, except maybe lettuce—but maybe even that too. Roasting is the secret to the City Bakery salad bar, much of the Barefoot Contessa cookbooks and the Amateur Gourmet’s bid for becoming an iron chef. (Ok, that’ll never happen, but I may be going to a taping in two weeks that I can’t tell you anything about because I’m going to sign a confidentiality agreement!)

The chicken you see above was roasted, but not by me. It’s half a pre-roasted Whole Foods chicken and once again, as with the vegetables, the roasting brings out all the chicken’s better qualities. If only we could roast people, wouldn’t the world be a better place? Oh wait, we already do!

Ven’ll You Roast Fennel?

The Barefoot Contessa, that wily vixen, she’s just so smart. She told me (via her TV show) to roast fennel and did I listen? Never. “The fennel,” she says, “gets caramelized as it roasts and it’s so delicious.” Did I heed her advice? Not at all.

Until yesterday. Yesterday I was roasting chicken and instead of buying potatoes I decided to buy fennel:

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Love her or hate her, you can’t say Ina’s recipes aren’t user friendly. To roast the fennel: just cut off the stems, slice the fennel in half length-wise, put the cut side down and cut into 1/2 inch slices. Toss on a cookie sheet with olive oil, salt and pepper, throw in the oven with the chicken, flip the fennel at 30 minutes and another 30 minutes later sprinkle with some parmesan, roast 5 minutes more and you have this:

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Golden, caramelized, scrumptious roasted fennel. It’s surprisingly sweet and yet savory enough to complement any main course, like the chicken I roasted along with it. So next time you’re in the supermarket and you see fennel, why not pick some up? As Ina says: “It’s gonna be really good.”

You Know Where You Can Stick That Asparagus? A 500 Degree Oven!

Let us lead with a lovely food photo–(I like it when my food photos are at the top of the page, like Clotilde and Heidi do on their sites):

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How scrumptious does that look? Don’t you want to lick the screen?

It’s the simplest recipe ever and it comes from Epicurious. Here’s the link for those who are so inspired they must click and make it right away.

Everyone else: let me summarize what you do. You can pick and choose which steps appeal to you. For starters, there’s the roasting of the asparagus and this is the best part. Now that asparagus is in season, you should do this at least once—it transforms the asparagus into something sweet and decadent with the most minimal of efforts.

1. Put a rack in the middle of the oven. Heat it to 500 degrees. Take your asparagus, wash them, dry them, and bend them holding each end. The bottoms will break off—you can discard them.

Now simply place these asparagi on a baking sheet. Toss with a drizzle of olive oil (I think the recipe says 2 to 3 Tbs, but I just gave it a generous drizzle.) Now sprinkle lots of salt and pepper over it. Don’t be shy, now, it’s important.

Place in the oven and roast for 7 minutes. You’ll hear the sizzle. It’s exciting! Take them out and set them aside.

2. Now for the bacon. If you’re not a bacon person, you can skip this step but I think the bacon’s important. Seriously, think it over—I’m sure you’ll come around.

All you do is fry the bacon on medium heat until crispy and drain on paper towels. That’s it. It’s THAT simple.

3. So now take the asparagus, put on a serving plate, and sprinkle some goat cheese over it. The goat cheese I bought I wasn’t happy with—it was a harder, less creamier brand and I didn’t like it. But it didn’t matter. Just break it up and sprinkle it over the asparagus; then the bacon. Finally, take a lemon, cut it in half, squeeze it over the top and grate the lemon peel over everything afterwards and that’s it.

You’re done! What a lovely dish! All thanks to me! (Ok, and maybe Epicurious.) Happy Spring.

I Don’t Think I’m Ready For This Jelly: Nectarine-Apricot-Ginger Jam

Preservation is a cool word. Officially it means: “the process of keeping safe, unchanged or in existence.” I particularly like how cultures, in order to preserve themselves, had to preserve their food in the process. Like Jews with smoked fish or Southerners and their pickled pigs feet. It’s a cool example of great food evolving out of necessity.

Nectarine-Apricot-Ginger jam, I presume, did not evolve out of necessity. It evolved out of France. And yesterday I began the process of making it using my new Mes Confitures book. First I went to Whole Foods and bought luscious looking nectarines and apricots:

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I also bought candied ginger, which is what Virginia Wolfe sends her maid to London to purchase in “The Hours”:

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Candied ginger is ANOTHER preserved food; it’s what sushi-eaters developed in Japan to keep their sushi fragrant. And sweet. Incrediblby sweet.

Ok, I made that up. But isn’t candied ginger the coolest candy? Because it’s easy-sweet yet it hurts. Really burns in your mouth like a jolt of fire. A great way to start the day!

Moving on, then, we boil the nectarines for 1 minute to loosen their skin:

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I employed the Barefoot Contessa’s technique for peaches where you make an X-shaped slit at the bottom of the fruit before boiling so when it comes out you can just peel the skin off. That didn’t work with the nectarines. I had to use a peeler. It was humiliating.

Now then, we reach the tumultuous part of our story. After slicing up the apricots and nectarines…

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…I read her next instruction: “Squeeze the lemon on the fruit to prevent oxidization.”

WHAT LEMON?

If you read her ingredients there is no lemon. How am I supposed to squeeze a lemon if I don’t have a lemon!

So I did what any jam-chef in my shoes would do. I ran back to Whole Foods–sprinting all the way–to buy a lemon. I arrived there covered in sweat. I grabbed a lemon. I threw money at the cashier. I ran back: my fruit was oxidizing!

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I burst through the door and squeezed lemon all over the fruit (and my cat in the process). Lolita was not happy.

Now then, the ginger:

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There are many people who don’t realize that ginger looks like this in its natural state. They think the ginger they get with sushi is normal natural-state ginger. WRONG! That’s PICKLED ginger. Pickling ginger is a preservation technique developed by the Loxahachee Tribe in Florida to keep their eyelids moist.

So we chop that ginger:

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Add it to the fruit, cover in tons of sugar, and add three cloves:

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Now then we start cooking it:

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Until the sugar melts and it starts simmering:

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This is cool because the only liquid that’s in there is the fruit juice, so you know it’s going to taste right and fruity.

Pour into a bowl and refrigerate overnight:

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TIME PASSES. OVERNIGHT, IN FACT. ADAM SLEEPS AND DREAMS OF A RIDING A CAMEL THROUGH A SUPERMARKET WHILE SINGING “MY SWEET LORD” BY GEORGE HARRISON. PEOPLE THROW ATKINS-RELATED PRODUCTS AT HIM. HE BECOMES A MARTYR AND A MUSICAL IS WRITTEN ABOUT HIM STARRING GEORGE WENDT. ADAM AWAKES.

Now then, we chop up the candied ginger:

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Pull our fruit from the fridge:

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And sterilize our jars:

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First I cleaned them with anti-bacterial soap and then I put them in the 225 degree oven. I figured keeping them face down would ensure that heat could get in while I placed the lids on their bottoms, because I feared putting the lids on the rack directly would melt them.

Meanwhile, I started cooking the jam:

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Her instruction is to get the jam to 221 degrees. It just wasn’t getting there. So I put the lid over it and it got there. I took a jar out of the oven. It was very hot. I immediately poured the jam into the jar, wiped the lid, sealed it up and gloated over my achievement:

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Gorgeous, no? A proud achievement indeed.

And then for the failure. While I was gloating, my jam started burning:

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I tried to fill the second jar but it was beyond redemption:

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Now I felt like a jam loser.

So I looked at my good jam again:

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I felt like a winner again.

My ego was safely preserved.