14 September 2006

A Thousand and One Nights of Polenta

Tarragon, Bear's Garlic, Rose petals, Cloves, Cumin, Peppercorns, Nutmeg, Cinnamon, Fenugreek, Star Anise, Ginger, Cardamom, Coriander, Onion, Garlic, Bay leaf, Celery and Salt. These are all the components of a strongly aromatic spice blend called A Thousand and One Nights. Right now, I don't think it is on the market, but Bats is working on getting their spices out on there. Since I had the luxury of testing out the blend, I set to work almost immediately.

Amidst the mustard yellow powder were beautiful dried rose petals as well as small green flakes of tarragon and bay leaves. Perhaps the blend reminded me somewhat of Soup Kambing (Mutton soup), but when I gave it a whiff I decided to head out for some lamb cutlets immediately. The lamb cutlets done medium rare (I'm still working on perfecting the timings for meat), were served on carrot puree, and accompanied by basil and onion polenta toasts.

While the lamb cutlet recipe was something I made up off-hand by combining some of the spice blend with olive oil, lime juice and honey, the carrot puree was taken from the French Laundry (possibly one of the simplest recipes they have in that book), while the Basil and Onion Polenta toasts were inspired by The Zuni Cafe Cookbook's Sage and Onion Polenta. This carrot puree was ridiculously simple for something that was creamily good, and complemented the slight sweetness in the One Thousand and One Nights Lamb Cutlets. The polenta toasts were moist and creamy beneath the golden brown and slightly crisp exterior, and I could imagine it being a wonderful addition in a great variety of dishes.

For example, I kept some for the following day to go with a Lamb and Cous Cous soup that I picked up from Donna Hay's Magazine (Issue 28). I simply sauteed some of the same marinated lamb with onions, garlic and carrots, deglazed the pot with chicken stock and added some tomato puree. I left it to simmer until the lamb pieces were tender. Just ten minutes before serving, I added cous cous, roughly chopped portobello mushrooms and thick slices of asparagus while stirring continuously. Presenting it was simply a matter of adding halved cherry tomatoes and warm Basil and Onion Polenta Toasts. While Donna Hay suggested serving it with Feta Cheese, I don't particularly appreciate Feta so I had shavings of Parmagiano Reggiano for it instead. It really was a hearty and filling bowl of soup, earthy with just faint hints of sweetness.

I realise that I have rambled on about Polenta without a proper introduction on it. It is simply ground dried yellow or white cornmeal (maize), that is popular in other parts of the world as their staple food, like how rice is to Asians though this is becoming decreasingly so. Come to think of it, I can't even remember the last time I had rice. Either it was a very long time ago, or I just have the memory span of a cow.

Anyway, polenta was not known to me until just a few years ago when I was still studying in Warwick (it feels so old to say this). Along with my discovery came other lightbulb-moments from Quinoa, Bulgur Wheat and Cous Cous. But ever since then, I've been eager to try out recipes using polenta and cous cous as they were more widely available.

So you can imagine my excitement when a friend sent me a recipe for a Polenta Cake (from Jamie's Italy) to try out since he had no access to a proper convectional oven. It had the basic cake ingredients, sans leaveners, and was chockful of chopped apples and raisins. Dried figs were involved as well but I decided to do without it. A little oversight on my part caused me to add twice the amount of eggs required for the cake, making it puff up slightly more than necessary. But it might have been a blessing since I found it sufficiently moist and dense. Any denser and I would not have enjoyed it past a few bites. I also made a few adjustments to the temperature to ensure that the top did not burn before the insides were cooked.

In the picture above, the Polenta Cake was served with a scoop each of Orange and Cardamom Ice Cream, and a Lime Ice Cream. As the cake had little bits of orange zest as well, I found it went much better with the former than the latter. Both were recipes I picked up from Emily Luchetti's A Passion for Ice Cream, but the I feel that the lime zest was not given enough time to infuse into the cream anglaise base, resulting in an ice cream perfumed only very slightly with lime. Perhaps it was because the Orange and Cardamom Ice Cream flavour dulled my tastebuds to the more subtle perfumes of lime. In any case, I see much potential in Lime Ice Cream since Lime Sorbets are usually overwhelmingly sour. Even typing the words 'Lime Sorbet' has over-activated my salivary glands.

And using the same garlic and basil infused olive oil, I made a variation of the Fettucine Aglio E Olio. This time, I served it with the soft, creamy and sweet garlic chunks, fried basil, and some lightly sauteed Porcini Mushrooms that I just got last night, courtesy of J. Coincidentally, I had been finding for some dried porcini mushrooms or morel mushrooms just a night ago, so this surprise was beyond pleasant. Straight from Italy, they were far more flavourful than the Portobello Mushrooms.

Carrot Puree
Adapted from The French Laundry Cookbook
Makes 2 small servings

2 medium carrots, cut into uniform pieces about ½ inch wide and 1 inch long
About 1 cup cream, or more.
Kosher salt

Place carrots in a saucepan large enough to hold them in a single layer.
Pour just enough cream to cover the carrots.
Bring to simmer over medium heat and simmer gently for 35 to 45 minutes, or until the carrots are completely tender (test: a knife should go through without resistance).
Adjust the heat as necessary so that cream does not scorch.
Drain carrots and press on them to remove excess cream.
Puree carrots in a food processor and season to taste with salt.

(Can be refrigerated in a covered container for up to a day.)

Basil and Onion Polenta Toasts
From The Zuni Café Cookbook
4 to 8 servings

5 cups water
1 cup coarsely ground polenta
3 tbspn unsalted butter
About 1 medium white onion
1 dozen fresh basil leaves, coarsely chopped
Freshly cracked black pepper

Bring water to simmer in a saucepan, then whisk or stir in the polenta then stir until water returns to a simmer.
Reduce heat until polenta only bubbles and sputters occasionally and cook uncovered for about 1 hour, stirring as needed, until thick but still fluid.

While polenta is cooking, melt butter in a skillet over medium-low heat. Stir in onions, basil and lots of freshly cracked pepper. Salt lightly and cook slowly until onions are translucent and soft. Add about a tablespoon of water each time if the pan is too dry. About 8 minutes.

Stir onions and basil into thick polenta, season to taste with salt.
Spread the mixture in a square pan and leave to cool to room temperature or until firm.
Cut into triangles and lightly fry in a non-stick pan with just a little olive oil until golden brown.
Serve warm.

Polenta Cake
Serves 8-12
(From Jamie's Italy)


A knob of butter
100g polenta
200g plain flour, sifted
100g stale breadcrumbs (though all I did was break up some fresh bread into small pieces and lightly fry in a pan until toasty)
100g caster sugar
500ml milk
3 large eggs, beaten (I used 6 small eggs)
100g honey
55 ml olive oil
100g dried figs (omitted)
100 g raisins
500g apples, peeled, cored, roughly diced (half green and half red)
Half teaspoon ground cinnamon
Zest of 2 oranges
Zest of 2 lemons
1 tsp salt

Preheat oven to 180 degrees celcius.
Mix polenta, flour, bread crumbs and caster sugar together in a big mixing bowl.
Mix wet ingredients of milk, eggs, honey and olive oil well.
Add to dry ingredients and stir until well incorporated.
Add the rest of the ingredients and stir well.
Pour into an 11inch/28cm round baking tin that has been lined with baking paper and greased with some butter.
Bake in oven for 30 minutes, reduce temperature to 140 degrees celcius and cover the cake with aluminum foil and bake for another 20 minutes.
Serve warm with a dollop of crème fraiche or a scoop of Orange Cardamom Ice Cream.

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