Friday, July 19, 2013

Grilled Polenta Cakes with Chunky Summer Veggie Sauce

I've been feeling guilty about not posting as frequently lately. It's not like I don't have things to share, it's that I've just had some crash-and-burn recipe experiences this week that have derailed my ambitions. Last Saturday, I went to a cooking class at Sutra, one of our favorite vegan restaurants in town, and came away from it inspired and excited to make the dish we prepared in class. After flubbing Sutra's surefire recipe for coconut whipped cream (which has been the Moby Dick to my Captain Ahab for quite a while now) and letting some pecan cheese ferment a bit too long (gross), I decided to regroup and get back to familiar territory for the time being. I will be sharing those dishes and more from the class soon, I just need to refine and tinker and learn first.

If you want to see how it's done firsthand, I cannot recommend Sutra highly enough. It's an incredible culinary journey, one that should be taken from a seat at the counter, so you can watch the production and chat with the chefs. The menu looks overwhelming, but the flavors work together better than you could imagine.

I wouldn't call this dish a consolation prize, because it turned out to be quite delicious in its own right. Polenta cakes are probably one of the easiest comfort foods around, and you can do a lot of different things with them (Candle 79 makes them into fries for their burgers). A lot of vegan polenta cake recipes use plain old water, but you should always use a good, flavorful stock instead. I use Better Than Boullion, which is a concentrated stock that you make at home. It has 10 times the flavor of a boxed or cubed stock, and offers a variety of vegan flavors. The straight-up veggie is my favorite.

I've read some stuff  about polenta vs. traditional cornmeal, and I don't really get the distinction. One is a little finer than the other, but that's about it. A more fine or medium grind is probably best for this, but you can use whatever you have on hand. Polenta is pretty inexpensive, so I go with that.

The sauce is more of a ragout, and you can use whatever chunky summer veggies you'd like. If you've got a garden, this is an excellent way to use up some of your summer bounty. You can swap rosemary or another fragrant spice for the oregano/thyme combination. It's a sturdy sauce, so changing up the flavors and getting creative won't do any damage.


Polenta Cakes:
1 cup polenta
4 cups of veggie broth
1 garlic clove, minced
3 tbsp nutritional yeast
2 tsp Earth Balance
1/2 tsp salt

3 tbsp olive oil
1 red onion, chopped
2 cloves of garlic, minced
1 yellow squash, sliced
1 zucchini, sliced
1 small eggplant, diced
1 can of diced tomatoes
1/2 can of tomato paste
1 small jar kalamata olives, pitted and sliced
2 tsp oregano
1 tsp thyme
1 tbsp chopped basil, plus more to finish with
salt and pepper to taste

Make the polenta cakes: Bring the broth to a boil. If you're using Better Than Boullion, boil the water first and then add the boullion to it, then bring it back to a boil. Pour in the polenta, stirring while you do it. Turn the heat down to a simmer and stir frequently. Make sure to scrape along the bottom of the  pot to keep it from sticking and burning. After about 15 minutes, it'll start to thicken up. You're looking for it to start pulling away from the sides of the pot when you stir it. Once you have that consistency (and there are no lumps), remove it from the heat and stir in the remaining ingredients.

 Spray a glass baking dish with cooking spray (I used a loaf pan, but you can use an 8x8 1/2 square dish as well) and pour the polenta in. Spread it around evenly on top and put it into the fridge to cool down and set up. It should be ready in 20-30 minutes, which is enough time to get the sauce ready.

Make the sauce: Put the oil into a skillet over medium heat and add the onion. I didn't dice this onion because I wanted a chunkier texture. Instead, I cut it into small wedges or strips. You can do it any way you like, though. Cook the onion until it starts to soften, then add the garlic and stir it around for a minute or so. Add the other veggies and toss them around. Cook them for 3-5 minutes, stirring occasionally. They should start to brown up a little and the eggplant should start to get kind of soft.

At that point, add the olives, oregano, thyme, diced tomatoes and tomato past and incorporate it all together. Turn the heat down a bit, cover it and let it simmer for a few minutes. Add the pepper and salt to taste at this point. Remember that the olives are pretty salty, so take a taste before adding the salt. This will be a pretty chunky sauce, so the goal isn't to break everything down, but to coat the veggies and get all the flavors together. Once that's done, remove it from the heat and cover it.

Take the polenta out of the fridge. It should be set up and solid, so that you can slice of a piece of it without it running through the cut (sort of like slicing off a hunk of pound cake). They don't need to look perfect when you slice them, and some of them may lose a corner in the process. No biggie. Remember, these will be covered with sauce. They'll also be devoured before anyone really notices.

You can put these on your grill or fry them up in a skillet over medium-high heat (I cheated and used my grill pan). Brush both sides with a little oil before you put them on the heat.

After a couple of minutes, they should start to brown up a bit or leave grill marks, which is when you'll know they're ready to flip. Once both sides are browned, you're done. They'll be a little crispy on the outside, which is what you want.

Put two of the polenta cakes on a plate and top them with the sauce. Top it with some more fresh basil and dig in.

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