Polenta for Fall and Winter

A friend reminded me the other day that we’re entering the season when cooked cereals for breakfast and hot soups for lunch are especially satisfying. To them I’d add polenta, another softly textured, warm and comforting food, perfect for fall and winter dinners.

One of our favorite fall polenta recipes is from Georgeanne Brennan’s lovely 1992 cookbook Potager, a book my sister Nancy gave me that year, writing on the title page: “This just looked like a Debby kind of food book.” She was right. Brennan’s focus on cooking from the garden in every season inspires me, and her recipe for creamy polenta with melted white cheddar cheese topped with sautéed garlic, red peppers, chicories, chard, and spinach is one we look forward to every fall.

polenta-with-peppers-greensI made it the other night using the last of the summer peppers stored in the fridge and chard and mustard from the garden. A great thing about this recipe is that any kind of green will work. Chicories, chard and spinach are delicious but so are kale, collards or mustards. And when I don’t have fresh peppers, those that I’ve roasted and frozen are a fine substitute.

And then there’s the polenta itself, the base of this dish. To make it, most recipes suggest bringing water to a boil, adding the polenta in a steady stream, stirring constantly, then reducing the heat and cooking for 45 minutes more, stirring frequently. That’s a lot of stirring. Luckily for me, another 1992 cookbook, Lynne Rossetto Kasper’s The Splendid Table: Recipes from Emilia-Romagna, the Heartland of Northern Italian Food, offered an easier method for cooking polenta, “a revelation,” Kasper notes, “for those who hate the tedium of stirring 30 or 40 minutes, as the stiff porridge fights you every step of the way.”


The key is a double boiler. Bring the water to a boil in the top of the double boiler, add salt and slowly add the polenta, stirring for a minute or two until the grains and water blend. Have water boiling in the bottom of the double boiler, set the top over the bottom, add the lid and cook for 1 and ½ hours, keeping the water simmering in the bottom. Two or three times during this hour and a half I check to be sure there is still enough water in the bottom pan and also give the polenta in the top pan a stir. Kasper concludes, “after 1½ hours the polenta will be thick, smooth, and have no suggestion of rawness in its taste.” I’ll add that the grains of ground corn will have swelled to a satisfying consistency, creamy and grainy at the same time. To serve six people, I use 8 ounces of polenta, 5 and ¼ cups water and a teaspoon of salt.

Though this cooking technique can be used with any ground grain, farro for example, to make a polenta, corn is the grain most commonly used for polenta, specifically ground flint corn. I use Giusto’s polenta, described on their website as having “robust flavor and the authentic Italian granulation.” It’s available in bulk at Blossom, the natural foods market here on Lopez Island, or online. Anson Mills also sells an authentic Italian corn polenta. Coarsely ground cornmeal or grits can also work but I like the flavor and texture of Italian polenta best.

polenta-closeupPolenta pairs wonderfully with so many foods. This time of year I like it with roasted Delicata squash and Gorgonzola cheese, with roasted root vegetables and a dusting of grated Parmesan, and with braised lamb shanks or lamb stew with black olives. And just this month I discovered another amazing way to eat polenta: with kale puree stirred into it just before serving.

I was leafing through April Bloomfield’s 2015 cookbook A Girl and her Greens, Hearty Meals from the Garden deciding whether or not to buy it when I saw a recipe titled Kale Polenta accompanied by a gorgeous photo of a pot of polenta swirled through with dark green kale puree. The final line of the paragraph introducing the recipe said: “You taste the sweetness of the corn polenta first, than a hint of garlic, and finally that green minerality of the kale at the end.” I bought the book. A few days later I made this dish for us and then a week later I made it for friends. I’m eager to make it again. It’s destined to be this year’s go-to polenta dish.



April Bloomfield’s recipes for Kale Purée and Kale Polenta:

Kale Purée

Makes 1 generous cup 

5 medium garlic cloves, peeled

1 pound Tuscan or other kale, thick stems removed (about 1/2 pound after trimming)

Kosher salt

1 teaspoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt

1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil

Put 4 of the garlic cloves in a medium pot, fill it with water, cover and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add enough kosher salt so that the water tastes slightly salty and add the kale, prodding to submerge it. Cook uncovered until the kale is tender and tears easily, 2 to 3 minutes.

Fish out the boiled garlic cloves and reserve. Drain the kale in a colander and, when it’s cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much water as you can. Roughly chop the kale, the boiled garlic and the raw garlic.

Combine the kale, garlic and Maldon salt in a food processor. Process, stopping occasionally to prod and stir, for about 45 seconds, then add the oil and process, stirring once or twice, to a fairly smooth purée. The purée keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.

Kale polenta

8 ounces coarse stone-ground polenta (cooked in a double boiler with 5 ¼ cup water and 1 tsp salt)

¼ cup extra-virgin olive oil

½ cup kale purée

2 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated

3 tablespoons mascarpone (I’ve substituted goat cheese and it’s tasty too.)

Coarsely ground black pepper

When the polenta is done, stir in the olive oil, kale purée and most of the Parmesan and keep over heat, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes more. Take the pot off the heat and fold in 2 tablespoons of the mascarpone (it’s nice to run into a little pocket of mascarpone, so don’t stir too much). Top with the remaining mascarpone and Parmesan and as much black pepper as you’d like.

Georgeanne Brennan’s recipe for Sautéed Garlic, Red Peppers, Chicories, Chard, and Spinach for White Cheddar Polenta


8 Giusto’s polenta (cooked in a double boiler with 5 ¼ cup water and 1 tsp salt)

2 Tablespoons butter

4 Ounces White Cheddar Cheese, grated

½ teaspoon salt

½ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper

Peppers and Greens

10-12 ounces Swiss Chard, ribs removed

8-10 ounces Chicory, stems removed

10-12 ounces Spinach, trimmed

3 red, gold or orange bell peppers or other sweet peppers, cut in half lengthwise and sliced lengthwise into thin slices

2 Tablespoons olive oil

2 cloves garlic, chopped

½ teaspoon salt

Just before the polenta is ready, heat the olive oil in a large skillet and add the garlic and sweet peppers. Sauté for 2 to 3 minutes and then add the greens. Sprinkle with the salt, reduce the heat, cover the pan, and cook for 3 or 4 minutes. The greens will steam and reduce considerably in volume. Remove the cover and continue cooking until the greens are limp but still retain their color, a few minutes.

When the polenta is done, stir in the butter, cheese, salt and pepper. Remove the pan from the heat and spread the polenta onto a warmed serving platter. Top it with the mixture of sautéed greens and peppers and serve.


Winter Vegetable Cookbooks

I have a collection of winter vegetable cookbooks on my shelf and look forward to opening them on these quiet days leading to the winter solstice when there is time to ponder this season and the vegetables the winter kitchen garden offers.  Out in the December garden hardy brassicas and greens, leeks and roots are ready to harvest but will also hold there for the coming winter months, gaining sweetness with each frost.  While I have some favorite methods for cooking all of them, there’s always pleasure in rereading recipes and reflections by other cooks who love this season and its food as much as I do.

Cookbook pileWhile all of these books share the purpose of encouraging cooks to explore winter vegetables, each has its own personality and reasons for this focus, reflecting both the time when it was written and the enthusiasms of the writer. One writes from her Pacific Northwest homestead, another from her roots in California and France while another brings her knowledge and experience of eastern European cuisines, another her discovery of Asian root vegetables. All write in detail about each root and hardy green, sharing history, anecdotes, nutrition, selection and storage and sometimes even planting and harvesting information. And all offer recipes and often stories behind them, leaving me inspired to cook and reminding me why I welcome the coming of this season.

Winter Harvest ckbkLane Morgan, Winter Harvest Cookbook: How to Select and Prepare Fresh Seasonal Produce All Winter Long, 1990 (revised and updated 2010)

Lane Morgan is a Bellingham, Washington writer as well as a cook and year-round gardener, and her book celebrates the winter vegetables and fruit we are fortunate to have in our climate, whether from our own gardens or from local markets and farmers markets. In the preface to the twentieth anniversary edition of her book she writes: “what hasn’t changed is my appreciation for local food and sustainable practices, and my conviction that eating with the seasons is best for our health, our palate and our planet.” (p. xi)  The opening “Produce List” section profiling vegetables and fruit ranging from Apples to Turnips is a must-read for anyone interested in planting and cooking from a winter garden here in the Pacific Northwest.  The recipes, arranged from soups through salads, main dishes, side dishes, sauces and desserts and baked goods, are wonderfully vegetable-focused and accompanied by charming stories linking them to cuisines, chefs and friends.  http://nwlocalfoods.blogspot.com/

Essential Root Veg ckbkSally and Martin Stone, The Essential Root Vegetable Cookbook: a Primer for Choosing and Serving Nature’s Buried Treasures, 1991

The Stones are New York City cookbook authors who write in their introduction that “It’s time that the lowly (pun intended) root vegetables at last rise up to take their rightful places within the reaches of gastronomy.” (p. ix) They’ve organized their book alphabetically by vegetable, Beets to Yams, and introduce each vegetable with its origin and history, varieties and availability, selection and storage tips, basic preparation and cooking information and very specific nutritional information.  The half dozen or so recipes that accompany each vegetable entry are creative and easy to follow. This book is a great resource.

Winter Vegetarian ckbkDarra Goldstein, The Winter Vegetarian: A Warm and Versatile Bounty, 1996

Darra Goldstein  is a professor of Russian at Williams College and has written about Russian literature, culture, art, and cuisine.  She is also the editor of Gastronomica: The Journal of Food and Culture and has written several cookbooks.  The Winter Vegetarian joins her love of winter and winter food with her knowledge of Russia and Northern Europe.  Of all the cookbooks I list here, Goldstein’s is the most satisfying to read.  She introduces the book with an essay describing her love of winter and winter food, ponders the winter pantry in another essay, and delights me, a rutabaga-lover, with an essay titled “Rutabaga Stories” in her chapter on Vegetables.  There’s even an essay on famous vegetarian Leo Tolstoy, “Tolstoy’s Table.”  The many recipes that accompany these essays are also inspiring and perfect for this season.  http://www.darragoldstein.com/

Down to Earth ckbkGeorgeanne Brennan, Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables, 1996

Georgeanne Brennan divides her time between Northern California and Provence. Her New American Vegetable Cookbook (1985), Potager: Fresh Garden Cooking in the French Style (1992), and The Food and Flavors of Haute Provence (1997) reflect her passion for both places and are long-time favorites of mine both for their recipes and for Brennan’s wonderful writing. Down to Earth: Great Recipes for Root Vegetables (1996), is another favorite.  The opening section profiles root vegetables from beets to yuca including along the way less familiar roots like lotus, taro and water chestnut.  The recipes reflect both the Mediterranean and California and while the focus is on winter meals there are also delicious recipes for preparing roots in other seasons. http://www.georgeannebrennan.com/

Root Cellar ckbkAndrea Chesman, Recipes from the Root Cellar: 270 Fresh Ways to Enjoy Winter Vegetables, 2010

Andrea Chesman is a Vermont cookbook author whose climate doesn’t let her pick winter vegetables from her garden but whose root cellar and local markets keep her supplied with hardy greens, onions, tubers, roots, winter squashes and beans throughout the winter.  Her opening Introduction to Winter Vegetables profiles these vegetables and offers availability, storage, purchase, preparation information and cooking ideas.  The heart of the book is her extensive and varied collection of recipes for soups, salads, side and main dishes.  Her enthusiastic commentary introducing each section and recipe makes this book a really fun one to browse or read straight through and the clear format and instructions make cooking and eating winter vegetables very satisfying. http://andreachesman.com/

Roots ckbkDiane Morgan, Roots: The Definitive Compendium, 2012

Diane Morgan is a Portland, Oregon cookbook author and her beautiful new book is a recent addition to my cookbook shelf.  While she includes many of the familiar roots—beets, carrots, parsnips, rutabaga and turnips—she also introduces many less familiar North American as well as Asian roots such as salsify and scorzonera, galangal and malanga.  The book is organized alphabetically by root so a read through brings the mind-expanding experience of moving from celery root to crosne, sweet potato to taro, yam to yuca.  The gorgeous photographs and thorough profiles of both the old standards and exciting new entries as well as the internationally inspired recipes make me want to locate seeds for new roots that might grow here as well as find a good Asian market.  I’ll be pouring over this book during the winter weeks ahead. http://dianemorgan.wpengine.com/