Polenta – Two National Treasures

Thank you to Deb for requesting a recipe for polenta.  Those new to this traditional Italian dish may be surprised to know it has Native American roots. Made of ground, dried corn kernels which we know as cornmeal, polenta is prepared in a similar way to grits in the American south.  Much like rice, cornmeal takes on the flavor of the company it keeps, making it one of the most versatile foods available.

Polenta can be prepared in the oven or more traditionally on the stove-top. The oven method is infinitely easier and the one I will cover here. The differences between the two methods are that the stove top version requires frequent stirring for up to an hour whereas the oven method is stirred only twice – once going into the oven and once coming out. The ingredients are the same for both: cornmeal, water, salt, and butter (or olive oil).

Combine cornmeal, salt, and water then bake @ 350 degrees Fahrenheit for 40 minutes

Used to performing as an obedient side dish, today’s polenta commands center plate in some of the more trendy restaurants.  Its beauty lies in a chameleon-like quality allowing it to be served hot and soupy or firm as a cake and fried or baked, seasoned savory or sweet. You can play with the texture by adding water to thin or using less to thicken. Ultimately what you serve depends entirely on temperature, which means the wizardry comes from how you flavor the mixture.

Traditional Polenta

Serves:  7 (4 oz. servings – ½ cup each)

1 cup polenta or medium ground cornmeal

1 quart water

1 teaspoon kosher salt

1 tablespoon butter or olive oil

1/3 cup fresh grated Parmesan

Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit. In a 2 quart greased baking dish, combine polenta, water and salt (if using table salt use ½ tsp). Bake for 40 minutes and stir – texture should be thick, smooth and spoonable as in the picture and not gritty when tasted.  Stir in butter or oil and Parmesan cheese. If done, serve immediately while hot. Otherwise return it to the oven to cook longer if needed, up to 10 minutes more.

Cooked polenta hot from the oven. The texture is spoonable and moist

For firmer texture, remove polenta from the hot baking dish to a shallow, greased dish on a cooling rack. If using, spoon polenta in to a food mold or let it continue to firm up for slicing later (or cut with cookie cutters). Within 10 – 15 minutes the mixture will be fairly firm.

Scoop cooling polenta into a greased ring mold then compress the contents

At about 30 minutes it is firm enough to unmold and brown in a skillet. Let cool completely before refrigerating.

Brown the firm cake over medium heat for about 10 minutes or till desired color is reached

For a rustic Italian dish worthy of a special occasion see Stuffed Chicken with Rosemary Polenta, and for an Italian spin on Eggs Benedict see Poached Eggs on Polenta.

Fried polenta cake topped with fresh salsa

To show some of the versatility of cornmeal, the fried cake made with the recipe above (without added Parmesan) is dressed with a fresh salsa for a touch of Mexico. Seasonings could include minced roasted chilies, onion, cumin, chipotle in adobo, Spanish Manchego cheese or a fajita seasoning blend to name a few.  Think how you would flavor a rice pilaf to come up with ideas. Try a seasoned broth instead of just plain water.  Add your choice of aromatic vegetables and dried seasonings at the beginning for a more uniform flavor. Fresh herbs or delicate seasonings are best added at the end or right at serving.

Some of my favorite combinations with polenta include:

  • Fennel and sun-dried tomato with Pecorino Romano, pitted black olives, and shallots
  • Pureed butternut or winter squash with goat cheese and sage
  • Top with caramelized onions or leeks, fontina cheese and toasted pine nuts
  • Add creamed corn, sautéed onions, thyme, topped with pecans, cranberries, and maple syrup
  • Sautéed chard, mushroom, red bell pepper, and white cheddar (sometimes ham)

Seasoning to Taste – and fond memories…..

It’s been a long while but I still remember some very special meals at grandma’s house. Whenever I’d ask her how she made something she’d reply, ‘Oh, I don’t know how much of anything goes in there, I just add a little of this and that until it tastes right’.  Bigmama, as we called her, didn’t have measuring spoons or measuring cups. Years later when I’d try to replicate one of her recipes, for more than one reason, it just didn’t come out the same.

Nowadays when I’m lucky enough to watch a coveted recipe in progress I can come fairly close to replicating it.  Even so the streams of liquids pouring into a bowl can be impossible to estimate as are random scoops of ‘this and that’.  I’ve often thought there must be a better way to capture creative genius.  Then one day I recalled the secrets of baking – all ingredients, no matter how small, are weighed. Professional bakers don’t use cups or teaspoons, they use pounds and ounces or grams and kilograms.  Baking relies a lot on chemistry and a key to making a consistent product is precise control of measurements. My plan was coming together – the next time I wanted badly enough to learn someone else’s recipe, with their permission I’d weigh their ingredients before and after use, then I’d have the measurements.  Now all I needed was a cooperative cook. So was the case of my husband, John, and his excellent Chili.

Soon I recognized that one of John’s favorite seasonings, Worcestershire Sauce, would show up in more than one of his prized recipes.   He doesn’t cook often but when he does he has a knack for rich, bold flavor. Made of vinegar, pepper, and anchovies, Worcestershire Sauce has a savory (umami) quality that really delivers.   We made a deal. The next time Chili was on the menu I would weigh the bottle of Worcestershire Sauce in advance and then again afterwards, leaving only the steps to observe and document for posterity. In just one shot I scored the excellent Chili recipe, and more important the proper amount of his secret ingredient – thanks in no small part to a must-have kitchen tool, the digital scale.

I use a Salter Stainless Steel Digital Scale, which I paid about $30 for a few years ago.  This model calculates weights in pounds and kilograms (Imperial and Metric Systems), and is precise to within 1/8 of an ounce, enough to calculate postage.  If you don’t have a good kitchen scale already, don’t waste too much time getting one. Then spend some time with grandma, if you are fortunate enough to still have her, and learn her recipes.  She’ll feel very special and you’ll have a family treasure forever.

Ode to Onions, Part 2

Infrared Thermometer

Thanks to Deb and Lois for requesting the caramelized Onion procedure and French Onion Soup recipe. Both are included below with pictures at the bottom of the post. Hover your mouse over each picture to see elapsed time.

Yellow onions are an all-purpose cooking onion and the best choice for caramelizing (reds are great for grilling, broiling or roasting; whites in raw applications to showcase their crisp fresh flavor).  Other recipes estimate the caramelizing process to range from 25 minutes to an hour, most of which involves patiently watching the onions and resisting the temptation to stir them.  I’ve minimized the baby sitting by covering the pan at the beginning of the process. This traps the heat and breaks down the onions faster, and captures the steam to provide needed water. I also watch the temperature closely. Notice the  infrared thermometer registering about 330 degrees Fahrenheit, in the range of medium heat (up to 350 deg.). Also notice the temperature dial on the stove set to ‘2’ (below, right). Imagine how hot it would be on ‘5’, which most people assume to be the indicator of medium heat.

Range Burner Dial

Caramelized Onions

1 pound yellow onions

2 Tablespoons pure olive oil

2 Tablespoons salted butter

¼ cup wine or vinegar (optional)

Step 1: Peel and halve the onion lengthwise then slice in about ¼” wide slices. Heat a heavy skillet to medium and when hot add oil and butter. Add onions to pan, stir to coat and spread them out evenly. Cover the pan for 10 minutes, stirring at the 5 minute mark, and again when the lid is removed. If you don’t have a thermometer you will need to peek occasionally to check for burning, and if so just lower the heat a little. It may just take a little longer.

Step 2: As the onion gives up its sugar it will begin to brown. Stir every 4 minutes or sooner just to prevent burning, for about 15 minutes or until you get the depth of color you are looking for. Here’s where patience comes in. The longer the onions stay in place the quicker they will brown, which should be about 25 minutes from start to finish.  Add a little salt to taste. Depending on how you plan to use the onions you can add a seasoning such as vinegar, wine, Worcestershire Sauce or fresh herbs within the last few minutes of browning.

Tips for success: Use a large pan so you don’t have to pile the onions on top of each other. We want them to be in contact with the hot pan so they will brown, otherwise you’ll be stirring a lot. A heavy pan reduces the chance of burning too quickly. A glass lid for the pan is recommended to let you see what’s going on.

French Onion Soup

Serves: about 6 (6 oz. servings)

Caramelized Onion Recipe (above)

1/4 cup Worcestershire Sauce

1 Qt. Beef Broth *

6 slices Provolone cheese

18 Crostinis or garlic bread (small slices)

Directions: In the last 5 minutes of the caramelized onion recipe add Worcestershire to onions and stir periodically to develop flavor. Add beef broth and bring to simmer for about 20 minutes and adjust seasonings: another pat of butter for richness, or Worcestershire for depth (be careful of the salt content at this point – the crostini and cheese will bring more salt). When heated through, ladle 1-cup portions into bowl and top with 2 or 3 crostini depending on their size (or small slice of garlic bread) then lay a slice of Provolone on top. Serve when cheese has melted.

*On Beef Broth – use the real thing. Make a well-seasoned crock pot roast with 4 cups of water so you’ll have enough broth then throw the roast away. Seriously, the most fabulous caramelized onions can’t overcome poor quality broth. Canned just won’t do.

USDA Recalls – What You Should Know

The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), provides updates to the public about certain recalls of FDA-regulated products. This includes manufactured or processed goods made for consumption such as food, medications, medical supplies, pet food, and more.

The complexity, quantity, and frequency of recalls are staggering. Because of my business I have been monitoring recalls since 2007 to stay informed on food safety. Some of the incidents are minor such as packaging mistakes, but some can be dangerous for those with severe food allergies or compromised immune systems. Not long ago a children’s gluten-free pasta was recalled due to the possibility of containing whole wheat. For someone with Celiac disease, this product could be life-threatening. While food distributors are quick to pull affected products from the shelves, what about the box in your pantry? What you should know is that there are ongoing incidents every day with common products we all use, and only the most widespread recalls make headline news.

You can register for email notification of alerts and recalls from the FDA, and start or stop notifications at any time. Click here to connect to their website and sign up. See the upper right corner, ‘Subscribe for emails’.

Ode to Onions

The humble onion is among the most healthful and powerful flavoring ingredients in the kitchen. Nearly every worldwide cuisine uses them. It is miraculous how they can transform food in so many ways. Depending on the treatment, they can be sweet or savory, crisp or soft, sharp, mellow, or nutty. Thank heavens they are cheap and abundant! If there is any one thing I always have on hand (other than dark chocolate), it is onions.

Cutting an onion off-center

Onions bring a depth of flavor that makes a dish satisfying. The most commonly available are yellow, white, and red (in the bulb form), scallions, leeks, and chives (in a leafy form). While growing, onions pick up sulfur from the soil which gives them their pungent and eye-burning character.  When cut, onions release a milky substance containing sulfuric acid, sulfur dioxide, and hydrogen sulfide (the latter which causes teary eyes).  A sweet onion, such as the Vidalia, is grown in soil with less sulfur. When serving onions raw it is a good idea to rinse or even soak them briefly.

Cutting onions can ruin painstakingly-applied mascara so it is best to tend to them before donning makeup.  The sulfur will dissipate quickly.  Stepping back a little from the cutting board and not holding your head directly over the cutting board will cut down on the effects. Refrigerating the onion for 30 minutes prior to use also helps. Avoid cutting through the root end (instead cut off center, see first picture) as this is where the highest concentration of sulfur resides. The flap of the still attached union layers when peeled back make a ready handle for further chopping (second picture).

Peel back the attached layers

Known as the beauty mineral, sulfur supports healthy hair, nails, and skin.  Research suggests that the compounds in onions may help reduce the risk of gastrointestinal cancers including stomach and colorectal cancer. Adding to already impressive benefits of onions, prebiotics are associated with improved immunity and mineral absorption. Onions area good source of fiber and Vitamin C, too.

In cooking, onions are typically sweated or caramelized. Sweating is done at a gentle heat in a little oil or butter without browning. The term refers to the tiny water droplets that form as the onion loses its water (onions are about 95% water). A term used in Mediterranean cuisines, soffrito, involves sweating onions and other vegetables, considered to be a mandatory first step for most soups, sauces and risottos. Caramelizing is done at a higher heat which causes a breakdown of the onion’s proteins and sugars causing browning, creating a sweet, savory, and nutty flavor. French onion soup draws its extraordinary reputation from caramelized onions.  It is very easy to learn these two techniques. If you have some experiences you’d like to share or questions let us know!

Essential Tools – Thermometers

There are just a few kitchen tools that I consider essential and thermometers are at the top of the list.  Much of cooking really comes down to science. Time and temperature are important for food safety and consistent results when cooking.  Using a thermometer is a way to ensure both.

This photo shows my collection, each having their own specific uses:  In the lower left is a bi-metalic stem thermometer (with a red plastic cover just beside it), the kind you may see in a chef’s pocket or sleeve on their jacket. It has a dial display for checking the temperature of the thickest parts of cooked foods.  To the right is a white Remote Roasting Thermometer  connected to a probe on a wire cord from Williams-Sonoma. This has a digital display for a more accurate temperature reading than the bi-metalic stem thermometer, able to monitor temperatures from outside of the oven while food is cooking inside the oven. This thermometer will sound an alarm when a preset the temperature is reached for a varity of meats.  I won’t cook a whole turkey without it.

Next over is the red-handled Infrared Laser BBQ Surface Thermometer by Maverick. Designed to measure the surface temperature of BBQ grills, it also has many other uses in the kitchen. This very accurate tool will sense the temperature of an object without touching it, displaying results digitally in Fahrenheit and Centigrade. I use it most often to determine when my stove-top skillet has reached the right temperature for cooking. The photo on the left is from the Maverick product description found on Amazon’s website.

Lastly, the thermometer on the far right in my collection above is an every day oven thermometer that you can pick up at most grocery stores. This hangs from the center rack inside the oven and keeps track of temperatures in a similar way the bi-metalic stem thermometer does. It has a dial display and is not as accurate as a digital display thermometer but very useful to have.

Oven temperatures swing widely depending on manufacturer and age of the oven. Each time the oven door is opened heat is lost.  Oven thermometers help you monitor what is really happening inside. For best results use thermometers in cooking and calibrate those that will allow you to do so. See manufacturer for instructions.

Upcoming recipes will make reference to all of these thermometers and more.

Mushrooms Forever

Mushrooms are one of my all-time favorite foods. I love them sautéed in garlic butter. They are welcome in my omelets, over steaks, in cheese sauces, on pizza and in quesadillas, as well as soups and stir fries. I love them in stuffing, on grilled sandwiches, in casseroles, their caps filled with crab or most anything imaginable.  The only use I don’t have for mushrooms is raw in fresh salads.

There are 5 main flavors associated with foods, according to an old text book picture of the human tongue I saw back in high school: salt, sweet, sour, bitter, and a recent edition, umami (some also add ‘spicy’ for a total of 6 flavors).  Umami is a Japanese word for ‘meaty’ or ‘savory’, a perfect description of the mushroom’s earthy essence.  Mushrooms can give depth and body to a sauce like few things can, making them a stealth ingredient in some of my sauces and soups (pureed and blended to remain anonymous).

The nutrients in mushrooms become more available to the body when cooked. Their strong cell walls take a little time to break down but will freely give up their treasures under heat. Other qualities of mushrooms: they are a low calorie food; a good source of potassium; contain B-vitamins and antioxidants (particularly selenium).  Some even have Vitamin D. One of the most thoroughly researched living things on earth, mushrooms are the basis for numerous antibiotics and other medicines including statin drugs (ex. LovaStatin, a derivative of the oyster mushroom).  Clinical studies are underway to validate the effectiveness of certain mushrooms in the treatment of cancer in humans. Animal studies have already confirmed the mushroom’s anti-tumor, antiviral, and cholesterol-lowering properties.  What’s not to love about mushrooms?  Let’s pay our respects and get cooking!

The following recipe is a scientific mystery. Put the baked mushrooms on a serving dish and they vanish! Great for entertaining and easily made ahead. Bake and serve immediately.

Garlic Mushrooms with Herb Cheese         

Serves: 4 polite guests get 2 each; or 1 selfish guest makes a meal

1 package (6.5 oz) Boursin Light Garlic & Herbs Gourmet Spreadable Cheese

Mushroom Caps (or whole mushrooms, stems removed – about 8 medium size)

2 Tablespoons butter

2 Tablespoons olive oil, or grapeseed oil

2 Tablespoons onions or shallots, minced

1 large garlic clove, minced

Parsley, minced, for garnish

Heat oven to 350 degrees.

Remove stems from caps and wipe off mushrooms with a damp paper towel.  Stuff caps (level) with Herb & Garlic Boursin Cheese.  Put all mushrooms in a shallow baking dish.

In a small skillet over medium heat, melt butter and oil with onion (or shallots) and garlic. Sauté vegetables until tender, about 3 – 5 minutes.  Let sauce cool slightly then pour over mushrooms. Garnish mushrooms with parsley then bake uncovered for about 10 – 15 minutes or until done, still slightly firm but not mushy.  Remove to serving platter and drizzle garlic butter mixture over mushrooms. NOTE: You can get fancy and sprinkle on some toasted bread crumbs right before baking, and combine a small, well-drained can of crab meat in the cheese mixture (which will make it go a lot farther and you’ll need more mushrooms. Worse things could happen).

Sources:  http://www.cancer.org/Treatment/TreatmentsandSideEffects/ComplementaryandAlternativeMedicine/DietandNutrition/shiitake-mushroom (American Cancer Society), and Nutrition Fact Sheet – Discover Mushrooms: Nature’s Hidden Treasures, American Dietetic Association, 9/2010).