You can't make everything from scratch

...but you can sure try!

Sunday, March 12, 2006

Polenta with caraway seeds

The backstory
For my first post, let me tell you a little story about polenta. Back in December, I paid a long-overdue visit with two good friends to Montreal's Brunoise restaurant. For the Christmas season, Brunoise was offering a prix fixe lunch special, the special being that they usually aren't open for lunch.

After much debate among the three of us over the menu - we didn't all want to order the same thing, because where's the fun in that? - I finally settled on the braised beef cheeks with porcini, asparagus and polenta.

Now, there were many superb aspects to that meal (especially the dessert, which probably deserves a whole post of its own), but it was the polenta that caught my attention for the main course. I haven't really eaten a lot of polenta in my life, but this particular version was stunning. It was the "cooked, set and fried" variety, beautifully creamy but firm on the inside, and with a crisp skin on the outside. It was also the most flavourful polenta I've ever eaten. On impulse, I asked the waiter if he knew what it had been fried in.

"I'm not sure," he replied. "Probably butter, but it may have been duck fat."

My friends gave me a look, as if to say Duck fat! As a frying medium? Who ever heard of such a thing?

I said to the waiter, "Would you mind finding out for me?"

Once he left, I turned to my friends: "I sort of suspected it was something like that. It would explain the incredible richness."

So imagine my surprise when the waiter returned to inform me it had been fried in simple vegetable oil. (Of course, I am open to the possibility that I was being misled of a belief that I was asking for health reasons, rather than flavour reasons.) I still don't know what made that polenta taste so good.

Meanwhile, back at home...
Cut to this week. With my husband out of town, I've had the run of the kitchen. This invariably means lots of red meat, because my husband has a sensitivity to it, and so we tend to avoid it. One thing I decided to try, after seeing a post Accidental Hedonist, and the follow-up post on Meathenge, was milk-braised pork (chops in my case, since I can't eat a whole roast by myself). As sides, I thought I'd do braised cabbage and fried polenta. Originally I toyed with the idea of tossing caraway seeds into the cabbage, because I like them, and because when I polished off the half-loaf of caraway rye I picked up at Pete's Frootique, I was sad.

But then fate conspired against me: apparently, you can't get the pre-made logs of polenta around these parts. (OK, so I only checked two grocery stores.) I had to make it myself. And if I was going to do that anyway... caraway polenta was born!

The recipe
To make the polenta, I poked around for a few recipes to see how it was done. The essential ratio here seems to be four parts liquid to one part cornmeal. Most of the recipes seem to call for salted water as the liquid, but I thought I'd see if I could approximate the richness of the Brunoise polenta by cooking it in chicken broth instead. So I tossed
  • 2 cups chicken broth (I use the Campbell's tetra-pack variety)
into a pot, brought it to a boil, and whisked in
  • 1/2 cup coarse cornmeal
  • 1 tsp. caraway seeds
continued whisking for 2 minutes, then reduced heat to low, covered and let simmer for about 45 minutes, stirring for 1 minute once every 10 minutes. (This is apparently an unorthodox method of cooking polenta, suggested by the Gourmet cookbook, which in turn credits it to Paula Wolfert. I liked it because it let me continue working.)

Once it was cooked, I spread it into a parchment-lined 8x8 pan (which was actually too big for the amount of polenta I had) and placed it in the fridge to chill. A couple of hours later, I pulled it out, cut it up, and fried it in some butter on medium-high until crispy on the outside and warmed through.

The results
I was quite pleased with it. Cold, the texture was rather rubbery, but once it was fried up, it became much softer on the inside, and provided that nice crispy skin. Next time I might use a little more liquid. The taste wasn't quite as good as at Brunoise - not that I really expected it to be - but I think it definitely benefitted from the chicken broth. The caraway ended being a beautiful touch, providing both a textural contrast within the polenta, and a flavour element to play off the rest of the meal. Definitely a make-again.

I ate some of it that night with the milk-braised pork chops and braised cabbage, and used some of it the next night (i.e., last night) as an appetizer with roasted red pepper, feta cheese and a balsamic reduction. Photos will follow in the next entry, once I get around to cropping them and posting them on flickr. That may not happen today, because I'm taking my first stab at making my own puff pastry. Stay tuned!

(...and don't worry: not all of my posts will be this long.)


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