I have a blog anniversary this month. Appeasing a Food Geek is 3 years old. It actually occurred a couple weeks ago, but I’ve been trying to put into words how I feel about it, so I kind of let it silently pass.
I’ve spoken previously about how this blog came to be and how it evolved to be a driving force in my life. I think its role has changed more than ever in the past year primarily due to personal and professional changes. Each year is a giant roller coaster for me mostly because of my tendency to wander for work. I will always take opportunities when they present themselves.
Last year was particularly challenging because of some personal changes I’m not quite ready to talk about in this space. Part of the reason is that I’m still struggling to wrap my mind around how I should move forward without simply running, which is my MO if you haven’t noticed.
But there were some incredibly exciting changes in the past couple of months that threw a giant confetti bomb into my life. I got a new job and moved to Boston which has thus far been one of the best decisions I could have made. I finally feel like I have a home outside of Minnesota. That’s saying a lot for someone that hasn’t lived in Minnesota since mid-2010.
While this new job is everything I could have hoped for, it’s creatively taxing. I get to develop more than ever in new and innovative spaces of the food industry. I pull long hours without even noticing it, so sometimes when I get a break, I just want to crash with a glass of wine. I also get meals provided at work, so the recipe development outside of my job description exists mainly in my mind.
That and my obsessive tendency to work harder and harder has not been the most productive for this blog and other outside projects. I started to photograph and schedule posts I wasn’t that in love with which was why I missed a post the first week of this month. My standards were slipping. I also notice that when I’m not feeling as excited about all types of foods and finding inspiration wherever I can, I feel burnt out which prevents me from developing with my best food forward at Chew. I decided I need to switch my approach for a healthier mental space.
One thing I’ve been missing is looking through my fellow bloggers’ pages, perusing new posts and old. This had a twofold deleterious effect. First, I was missing that blogger interaction because I’m more engaged during the day at work than ever before. Second, much of my inspiration comes from my favorite corners of the internet—letting the beautiful photos and words wash over me as I scroll through the recipes.
My solution? I have begun to get up early before work each day and get that time back. I eagerly wake up, make myself an espresso, and sit down to my computer. I’ve noticed that this time is not only calming and replenishing to my creative juices, but it puts me in an amazing mindset for the day ahead.
I’m not sure what the future holds for this space, but I do know that it pulls me through the thick and thin. A constant in a life full of changing paradigms. Because of that, it’s one of the only rulers I have to measure myself against. When I need to make changes to be my best self. So to celebrate the 3 years of sharing recipes and science-y tidbits from my kitchen, I went more humble than a cake or some complex baking project. I made polenta.
We’re getting to the point where I am now finally craving more “meat-on-the-bones” type food. You know, that comforting and wholly nourishing food. It simmers slowly, growing more complex in flavor as it fills your kitchen with familiar aromas from the year before when you last partook in comfort cooking. I don’t mind if these dishes take a little extra time. I revel in returning to the kitchen and preparing ingredients almost like a meditation. Enter polenta.
I always picture an Italian grandmother making polenta with some sort of veal or pork on top, falling apart from cooking all day. Preferably in the mountainside with children afoot and copious amounts of cheese and wine being snacked and sipped on all day long. Obviously this is a gross exaggeration of anything that actually happens ever, but it explains my comforting thoughts surrounding polenta. Throw in the fact that it takes a bit of time to coax out that silky smooth texture, and you’ve got a magical formula for a time when I’m aching to return to the kitchen.
Polenta is cornmeal. Simple as that. And cornmeal is dried corn that’s been de-germinated and ground up. Whoa back up. De-germinated what? A corn kernel has three main parts. The husk, germ, and endosperm. The husk is the outside coating, the germ is the oil and protein-rich layer, and the endosperm is chock-full of starch. Cornmeal, for our polenta purpose, is solely endosperm. See where this is going? When you cook that dried corn endosperm with a bunch of liquid, you get starch gelatinization! You’re definitely sick of me talking about that because it seems to be on repeat in this space for the past few months. So I’ll just point you this way for the magic of starch gelatinization. Basically, with some time and all that cooking liquid, the starch softens and expands, taking up space, creating a thickened porridge. That’s where the magic is. Silky polenta coming your way.
The other interesting part is that when it cools down, starch comes into play again. Because polenta is basically only starch, it’s at the mercy of starch functionality alone. When starch cools after it gelatinizes, it gels! That’s called retrogradation. The starch granules tighten up and cause the mixture to solidify. Generally, we hate this. It ruins breads and pastas once it goes to work. In the case of polenta, it’s kind of amazing. That gelation creates a smooth cake that you can bake, fry, or grill. And while we don’t take advantage of this property in this recipe, that gelling starts once it begins cooling, so eat this baby right away! And you can easily re-purpose leftovers when it comes to polenta. (Also, might I add, that in the process of taking photos, the polenta tightened up, so please excuse the edges that look a little more solidified!)
For this dish, relax and let the stove do its work. It’s minimal in effort, but it does take some time. Pour yourself a glass of cabernet and sit back, letting the good vibes and aromas wash over you. Similar to last week’s melding of fall and summer flavors I raved about, I combined this hella-comforting polenta dish with a slow-roasted tomato to take advantage of those last lingering tomatoes of the season. If you happen to be reading this in December or another month that does not boast fresh tomatoes, don’t fear. Slow-roasting tends to make even the most lackluster cherry tomatoes bright. Enjoy! And might I request that you pour yourself another glass of wine?
Polenta with Kale and Slow-Roasted Tomatoes
Adapted from Florentine
For the Polenta
1 small onion, chopped
1 carrot, chopped
1 celery stalk, chopped
1 garlic clove, minced
2 tablespoons olive oil
1 ½ oz pancetta, chopped
1 bunch Tuscan Kale, stems and larger veins removed and leaves roughly chopped
1 tablespoon tomato paste
4 cups vegetable or chicken stock
11 oz (~ ¾ of a 15 ½ oz can) canned cannellini beans, drained
1 cup polenta
Salt and pepper
For the Tomatoes
2 cups cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
2-3 tablespoons olive oil
Softened goat cheese
Coarse sea salt and freshly-ground black pepper
- Prep the tomatoes. Preheat the oven to 300⁰F. On a parchment-lined baking sheet, arrange the tomatoes in a single layer. Drizzle with the olive oil and toss to coat. When preheated, put in the oven on a rack centered in the middle.
- Prep all of your veggies. In a large, tall-sided frying pan, heat the olive oil over medium-low heat. When glistening and hot, add the onion, carrot, celery, and garlic. Cook on low heat until soft and translucent and fragrant, about 10 minutes.
- Add the pancetta and cook for a further 3 minutes.
- Add the chopped kale, tomato paste and half of the stock to the pan. Stir to combine and ensure not clumps of tomato paste remain. Add the rest of the stock.
- Simmer, covered, for 20 minutes until the kale leaves are tender. If not soft to your liking, cook for another 5 minutes. Add the drained beans, a generous pinch each of kosher salt and pepper, and the polenta. Stir until combined. Simmer, uncovered, for about 40 minutes, stirring occasionally until the polenta is cooked and creamy. Add extra water as necessary if it becomes thicker than oatmeal. I had to add an additional ½-¾ cups or so. If you are using instant polenta, adjust accordingly.
- While the polenta is cooking, increase the oven temperature to 350⁰F with the tomatoes still in the oven. Cook your tomatoes for an extra 5 minutes once it reaches temp to flash off some extra water. Remove from the oven. They have flexibility when it comes to cooking, so depending on how organized you were with the polenta cooking and prep, they should have been in the oven for a total of 1 ½ hours or so.
- When the polenta is finished, remove from the heat and serve immediately. For serving, spoon the polenta into your bowl followed by a scoop of the tomatoes. Top with a bit of goat cheese, a drizzle of good olive oil, and a generous pinch each of sea salt and black pepper. Enjoy!
- For leftovers: the polenta solidifies well. Pour into a baking dish and put in the fridge. You can bake or fry slices of it within the next few days.