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Monday, May 9, 2011


Do they still refer to ladies support (ahem) undergarments in department stores as "foundations"?

Not that that's what I'm about to discuss with you.  Really.
What I'd like to share is a foundation that provides a base for things to rest upon.
And no, that's not my sofa, which beckons to me on weeknights, upon my cushions...waste a few hours watching American Idol...don't you want to know if Scotty got voted off yet?
No no no...what I want to tell you about is my relatively recent devotion to a new dinner-related foundation.
Because, you see, what I've realized is I am very fond of a rather architectural approach to cooking.  Especially weeknight cooking, when one typically arrives home tired and hungry.  (Sound familiar?  Anyone?)
The food that seems to make me happy in those instances is hot, of course (do not even think about suggesting salad to me, when the year-round temperature here seems to be 57 degrees) served in a shallow bowl and then topped with something else, which can then be topped with some kind of garnish.  See?  Think vertical. 

Over the years, there's been an evolution of what I've cooked regularly as a base and one long-time favorite was rice.  Easy enough to start with, and back when I was first out, living on my own (oh, you remember...rice = cheap) an easy topping was a stir-fry of sorts.  Many have done the same, I'm sure... the usual suspects, broccoli, onions or scallions, red peppers, maybe some carrot, etc all tossed together with soy sauce in a garage-sale wok.

And, I'm sure we all remember The Baked Potato as a transportation device for either a heap of cheese and sour cream plus, ok, again...broccoli.   The less said about that, the better.

Then, for the longest time, canned beans were my preference. Sauteed in a pan with olive oil, some garlic and chopped celery, onion and/or carrot, a can of beans would come to life and become the perfect foundation for broiled chicken or, um, steamed broccoli.  The can-of-beans thing lasted a good long time, as I varied the toppings over the years... escarole stirred in with a bit of chicken stock,  steamed kale or Swiss chard, sauteed with garlic and a pinch of red pepper flakes and then topped with some shaved Parmesan. 

This is where I've been, until very recently when two elements converged for me and led to a delightful new direction.

First, a winter Sunday afternoon marathon session watching episodes of America's Test Kitchen revealed a quick, simple and ultimately delicious polenta recipe.  Now, please...let's not panic.  Polenta has a bad rap for being one of those things, like risotto, that one must fuss over, chained to the stove, stirring constantly.  Most definitely not in the category of 'weeknight cooking'.
But, 'the cooking nerds' as I like to call them, claimed to have unlocked the secret to easy, no-stir polenta.  I was intrigued.  It's basically all about a pinch of baking soda at the beginning of the process which helps tenderize the cornmeal and allows it to cook faster, covered, with no slave-to-the-stove stirring.  That's about all I needed to hear -- I was in.  Early batches proved to be an epic revelation.  They tasted great, and were crazy simple to make.  The nerds also offered a topping idea -- sauteed, broccoli (ha, I kid you not!) and sun-dried tomatoes with a sprinkling of pine nuts.  That was all fine and tasty, but then...a cookbook randomly checked out of the library brought everything full circle.

Melissa Clark's book In the Kitchen with A Good Appetite was my kind of book.  No fancy, lavish food-stylist designed photos.  Just interesting little stories connected to what looked to be temptingly delicious recipes.  Perfect bedside reading for a girl like me.  And, wouldn't you know it...there, in one of the early chapters...a description of my idea of the perfect comfort food:

Polenta with Sauteed Swiss Chard Topped with an Olive-Oil Fried Egg. 

I already HAD the perfect polenta recipe...there was chard in the fridge AND fresh set of eggs from a local farm sitting on the counter.  I barely could keep myself from leaping out of bed at 10:40 that night to try it right then and there.

So, I waited through the next work day.  (Not kidding.  I'm weird that way.   Pondering and looking forward to what I will make for dinner that night.)  Got home and couldn't get into the kitchen fast enough.  (Yes.  Totally weird, I tell you.)

Here's how it goes:
(1) The polenta (see below).  A snap.  I've got it down cold, so that it is perfectly, consistently good.  Get that into a shallow bowl and then Melissa tells you to (2) top the polenta with shards of shaved Parmesan (genius!) which you (3) then top with your sauteed chard (right, there's that vertical thing!) which then melts the cheese into the top of the polenta -- so totally clever... and then, (4) the garnish.  

An egg, fried super-fast in a pan of hot, hot olive oil... it sputters menacingly and browns like crispy lace at the outer edges, but leaves the yolk runny and gooey so that when you slide it on top of the chard and sit yourself down to break into it with your fork, you give it a little stir and  the yolk runs down into the chard and polenta making a nice little sauce.

You take a bite and simply sigh.  Contentment.

Age old wisdom doesn't disappoint...nothing beats a good foundation.

You want to find a coarse-grind of should look almost like ground coffee.
Also, make sure you've got a really low, low flame on your burner.  The polenta should not bubble or sputter -- just let out little sighs of steam.  If you can't get your burner low enough, try a flame-tamer disk (available at hardware stores) or the homemade version, a long, stretch of aluminum foil, crunched into a 'snake', then coiled and set to rest between your pot and the iron grate on your stove.

Basic No-Stir Polenta
adapted from America's Test Kitchen
serves 4 as a main, 6 to 8 as a side dish 

7 1/2 cups water  
1 1/2 teaspoons table salt  
Pinch baking soda
1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal
2 tablespoons unsalted butter  
4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving
Ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover. 

2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.) 

3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing Parmesan separately.

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