Tag Archives: adventures with an ingredient

Adventures with an Ingredient: Polenta

23 Apr

Today’s recipe post includes meat, but is really about the base grain ingredient here: polenta. Polenta is a misunderstood and often under-used ingredient, I think, because it requires a certain kind of attention to do it right. I’ll cover some of the basics and then get to the recipe at hand.

First, what is polenta?

Polenta is actually ground cornmeal — just like the stuff you buy to make cornbread, but ground to different consistencies. You can buy polenta either coarsely or finely ground. Coarse ground polenta is a grits-consistency, while fine-ground moves closer to cornmeal, and then to corn flour, with additional grinding.

You can buy polenta in many different forms, too. If dry, you will have to boil the polenta to make it edible. But many stores now sell precooked polenta (usually in a tube) which has already been boiled, and then shaped.

There are two different preparation types for polenta: creamy or solid. This recipe features creamy polenta, so the steps are included, but consists basically of a mashed potato consistency product. (And yes, you can produce creamy polenta from precooked polenta, by adding more liquid and boiling it, or you can just slice it and prepare as baked polenta, below.)

Baked polenta takes creamy polenta and transforms it into a solid by spreading it in a casserole dish (like the kind you’d bake brownie batter in) and either baking or chilling it to harden. From there, you can grill, fry, or slice the polenta into any shape you’d like. Some of my favorite solid polenta recipes include polenta sticks and polenta lasagne.

But I’ve always had textural issues with creamy polenta, so lately I’ve been determined to try a recipe that would make it work for me. When I came across this one for parmesan polenta with spicy sausage, it sounded just right. I thought the chunky sauce would mix well with a flavorful creamy polenta and I wouldn’t mind the mush.

And it worked! I definitely recommend mixing the parmesan into the polenta. It doesn’t have much flavor on its own. I used Italian-flavored pork sausage for the recipe, not the turkey sausage it calls for, but otherwise, stuck to the directions, figuring I could eat the leftovers for lunches this week.

Hopefully this edition of Adventures encouraged you to try something new!

What are your favorite polenta recipes? Leave a comment and share your tips! And as always, if you have any requests for ingredients to see showcased here, ask away!

Adventures with an Ingredient: Red Cabbage

16 Nov

Like many people out there, I’ve struggled with incorporating vegetables into my diet. I’m a very picky eater, and reticent to try new things, so I often stick to the old standards at the grocery store. I’ve written before on the blog about what happened to my weight and health as a non-veggie eating vegetarian, and given some advice on how to incorporate more veggies into your diet, generally.

But this week, as I stared into the crisper drawer of my refrigerator, I was inspired to try something new. To write a series of posts, perhaps, as how-tos on certain, possibly under-utilized vegetables. I was inspired by my head of red cabbage.

Image copyright Ian Alexander

I have a weird love of red cabbage. Since the salad bar days of my youth, when I first tried red cabbage, I couldn’t get enough of its sharp, tangy crispiness, the way it jazzes up a salad. Sometimes I even just chop up red cabbage, toss it with a little balsamic vinegar, and eat a bowl of it for a snack. But even as much as I like it, this is all I’ve ever done with it. Staring at the half-used head of it there in the crisper, I realized I had no idea what to do with red cabbage.

And if I, someone who will actually buy it and enjoy it, don’t know how to cook red cabbage, then what are the odds too many people out there are enjoying all that red cabbage has to offer?

So here’s the lowdown on red cabbage, and a recipe for an outside-the-box way to use it.

Red Cabbage vs. Radicchio, courtesy of FoodBlogga

First, red cabbage is not radicchio (which is also delicious). Radicchio is a “leaf chicory,” the same family as Belgian endive, with a bold, slightly bitter natural flavor. Whereas red cabbage is, well, a cabbage. I prefer the red variety to the green because it’s a bit sweeter, and less pungent (though when cooked, it still has that distinctive cabbage taste — and smell).

Red cabbage in particular, and all cabbage in general is a super-health food! While cabbage offers high Vitamin C and anti-oxidant benefits, red cabbage includes a newly-understood group of plant pigments known as anthocyanins, which early studeis suggest offers cancer protection, improved brain function and heart health.

So what can you do with it?

In my searching for an answer to that question that went beyond “gnaw on it raw like a bunny,” I came across this great article on cabbage and its many uses from Wise Bread (a great frugal living resource staffed in part by my friend Meg Favreau!).

It probably comes as no surprise that many cabbage recipes involve turning it into a slaw or sauerkraut — the ingredient has strong German heritage — and many may have heard of cabbage soups, made popular by a 90s fad diet (which, while stinky, probably worked). But I was intrigued by the casserole idea, so I went forth to find a recipe that would make good use of my red variety.

Enter scalloped cabbage with cranberries and turkey. I made a few modifications based on my pantry. I don’t have any fennel, so I skipped that. I used orange juice instead of cranberry juice. I had sliced deli turkey breast on hand, which worked just fine, and of course, I used red, rather than green cabbage.

What a surprising treat this recipe turned out to be. When cooked, especially with the fruit juices and salty broth, the red cabbage’s sweetness took on a new complexity. The turkey helped keep the dish from being overcome with sweetness — very much like when you mix together everything on your Thanksgiving plate, with your grandma’s crunchy sauerkraut thrown in. I’d add this to my list for next week — would be a great, creative way to use some Thanksgiving leftovers without being repetitive to the original meal.

Hopefully, you’ll all think about picking up a head of red cabbage next time you’re at the store. Don’t be put off by its size — I used about half a small head for my scaled-down version of this recipe, so it’s easy to use up fast. And if all else fails, at least you know tossing some raw red cabbage in a bowl with ranch dressing works — and is a lot better for you than doing the same with a head of iceberg.

What are some of your favorite ingredient secrets? Are there vegetables, fruits, meats or even non-traditional ingredients you love, and believe may be under-appreciated? Or, what ingredient do you always pass by warily at the store? What ingredient have you always wondered — what the hell would I do with that? Leave a comment and share your recipes or fears, and you may be featured in a future “Adventure’s With an Ingredient” post!



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