Sunday, September 15, 2013

Okra and Fig Stew with Fresh Corn Polenta

This dish was sort of a happy accident. I knew I wanted okra and zucchini for the stew, but the store had a screamin' deal on organic figs, which intrigued me (I've never cooked with figs). It was a gamble, but it paid off. The figs add a really wonderful element to the flavors of this stew.

This is another one of those versatile dishes. If you don't have one thing, you can certainly throw in something else to substitute. As long as it's in the same neighborhood flavor and consistency-wise, you should be okay. And if it isn't? Well, maybe you'll stumble onto something really great and unexpected. Or maybe you'll learn what not to do next time. I've had plenty of both experiences. Luckily, this is one of those dishes that's hard to screw up, no matter what you end up using.

The corn polenta is really easy and delivers an incredible flavor. In fact, I'll make a confession: the night I made the stew, I served it over rice. It was okay, but something was missing. Luckily, I'd made a ton of it and that gave me a chance to get it right the second time. The next day, I was at the Pike Place Market picking up some spices and saw all this beautiful sweet corn at one of the stalls. I'd always wanted to try making polenta from corn rather than cornmeal and this was an excellent opportunity to do so.

When we ate this the next night as a stew-and-polenta dinner, everything had changed. The polenta brought it all to life in a way rice never could. This approach to polenta is easier than the traditional way (none of that constant stirring), so give it a try. You won't regret it!


For the stew:
1 sweet onion, chopped
1 cup of okra, stemmed and sliced
2 zucchini, sliced
5 figs, quartered
1 can of diced tomatoes
6 basil leaves, chopped or torn

For the polenta:
5 ears of sweet corn
2 tbsp vegan butter
1 tbsp nutritional yeast
1 clove garlic, minced

Make the stew: In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, heat a little olive oil. Drop in the onions and cook over medium-high heat until translucent. Add the zucchini and stir it around, letting them cook for about 3-4 minutes. Add the figs and cook for another minute or so.

Add the tomatoes and basil and stir to incorporate them. Throw in a little salt and pepper and then bring it all to a boil. Once it gets going, reduce the heat and allow it to simmer, uncovered, for about 30 minutes, stirring occasionally.

In a skillet, heat a little olive oil over medium heat and add the okra. Stir it around so that it browns evenly on both sides, about 5 minutes. Add the okra to the stew in the final 10 minutes of cooking time. It'll get soft and gummy if you do it sooner.

Make the polenta: Remove the leaves and silk from the corn, then stand each ear up on end and slice down the sides with a sharp knife to remove the kernels. I do this in the pot I'll be cooking them in, so when the kernels go flying, they stay in the pot and don't end up on the counter or the floor.

Once your kernels are removed, put just enough water in the pot to cover them. Bring the water to a boil and then reduce the heat. You want these to simmer gently for about 10-12 minutes.

Once they're ready, remove them with a slotted spoon or pour them through a fine-mesh strainer, reserving the cooking water. Put the corn into a food processor and let it run for a while to really break down the corn, checking it periodically and pushing down the sides, if necessary. It will be pretty thick, but it's supposed to be. If you need to loosen it up, use a little of the cooking water. Go sparingly with it, though. If you get it too liquid-y, there's no getting it back to the proper consistency.

Put the corn back into the pot and stir in the butter, garlic and nutritional yeast. It should look like a chunky polenta.

If you cook this while the stew is simmering, it should all be ready around the same time.  Spoon some of the polenta on a plate and top it with a ladle of stew. Top it with a few fresh basil leaves and you're ready to dig in.

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