Saturday, December 15, 2012

Easy Soft Polenta with Olive Oil Simmered Leeks

Some recipes are intuitive and transparent, like throwing together a fresh salad with seasonal produce, and they serve as a helpful reminder or inspiration. Other recipes pique our interest because they seem mysterious, improbable, and opaque. There's a special pleasure that comes from suspending one's best judgement, trying such a recipe, and having it succeed. Here are two such recipes from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen, a manifesto on the pleasures of slow cooked foods. The first recipe if for oven-baked polenta, which I was inspired to try with our ample supply of polenta from our Lonesome Whistle Farm CSA. Stirring your polenta continuously over a hot stove can be rewarding (and bicep building). But if you have time, and especially if you already have your oven on for a roast or stew, Wolfert's method is remarkably effortless and produces deliciously creamy polenta from an unpromising-looking sedentary sludge of water and cornmeal.

With my polenta and a Fair Valley Farm ham baking in the oven, and no stirring to occupy me, I got to flipping through Wolfert's cookbook and came across a recipe for slow cooked leeks and root vegetables simmered in olive oil that seemed perfect for my latest haul from Open Oak Farm's CSA. This recipe, which Wolfert described as "Mediterranean alchemy", offered the intrigue of a secret ingredient (a tablespoon of soaked rice) and an unusual cooking techniques (a parchment paper sealed pot). The final dish was a revelation: a meltingly sweet concoction of leeks and shallots that tempered the sharpness of a purple winter radish without cooking it to mush. And unexpectedly, the vegetables made a wonderful topping for the creamy polenta. The dinner was especially tasty resulting from the leisurely suspension of disbelief.

Oven-Baked Polenta
from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen
serves 6-8
2 cups polenta 
2 Tbsp butter or olive oil
2 tsp salt
8 cups cool water

1. Preheat oven to 350 degrees. In a large ovenproof pan, melt the butter or add the oil and swill to coat the bottom and sides. Combine the remaining ingredients and stir with a fork. Bake, uncovered for 1 hour and 20 minutes. 

2. Stir the polenta with a fork, season with additional salt to taste, and bake for about 10 more minutes, or to the desired consistency. Remove from the oven and let rest for 5 minutes. Serve warm. 

Note: Leftovers can be reheated in a microwave, mixing between heating, and the polenta will become creamy again.

Leeks Simmered in Olive Oil
from Paula Wolfert's The Slow Mediterranean Kitchen
2 pounds leeks
1/3 cup chopped onion or shallot
1/4 cup olive oil
2 medium carrots, peeled and sliced, or substitute other root vegetables such as turnips or winter radishes
2 tsp sugar
1 Tbsp rice
salt and pepper to taste
juice of 1/2 lemon, or more to taste
1/4 cup chopped flat leaf parsley

1. Clean the leeks thoroughly (I like to trim the roots and green tops and then cut them lengthwise and wash them, splayed open, under running water, then drain well.) Cut them into two inch lengths. 

2. Combine the onions, olive oil, and root vegetables in a heavy Dutch oven and cook over medium heat, stirring, for 2 to 3 minutes. Stir in the leeks and sugar, cover with a sheet of parchment paper or foil and a tight-fitting lid, reduce the heat to low and cook for 20 minutes (Leeks and root vegetables should cook in their own moisture. If necessary, add 1 Tbsp of water).

3. Meanwhile, in a small bowl, soak the rice in hot water for ten minutes. Drain.

4. Add the rice to the leeks. Season with salt and pepper, and cook, tightly covered, for 20 minutes longer.

5. Remove from the heat and add the lemon juice. Wolfert recommend serving the leeks and vegetables at room temperature or chilled, but they are also delicious warm on top of polenta with grated parmesan cheese.

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