SWING-SEASON POLENTA: A MARKET STORY
I am eating my way through October with gusto and greed. It’s the year’s great swing season, after all. The days are still warm and long enough to allow the last of the tomatoes, eggplant, green beans, and corn to sweeten and mature. Short-season cool-weather crops of lettuces and radishes—tender and juicy—are being harvested.
And all jostle for space at the farmers market with winter squashes, which range in color from the deep orange of a Red Kuri (a relatively new Japanese kabocha type) to the Chanel beige of a butternut. The root vegetables—sweet potatoes, parsnips, and carrots—that have been growing underground for months are just dug and still smell of damp earth, and the kales, collards, and other pot greens look robust and succulent.
The other day at Union Square, I found myself standing meditatively in front of a bin of chard grown by Keith Stewart. Chard (a.k.a. Swiss chard) is not my favorite green—it can taste a little muddy to me unless doctored up. But with mild, crunchy stems and leaves that turn almost as silken as those of beets (a close cousin), it counts as a “two-fer” vegetable in my book. And besides, both the white- and golden-stalked varieties on sale were drop-dead gorgeous.
Most importantly, though, they put me in mind of an autumn week I once spent cooking with the masterful Georgeanne Brennan in the south of France. Chard is the staple green in that part of the world—you’ll even find it served for dessert, with honey, pine nuts, or apples, in a tourte de blettes. I remember Georgeanne telling me about the cheese-rich polenta she makes, topped with sautéed garlic, sweet peppers, chard, and any other odds and ends she found in her garden. It sounded delicious at the time, but I’d never gotten around to trying my hand at it. I have no idea why, because it is extremely simple to make and and lends itself to improvisation.
You’ll see part of my haul from the farmers market above. The Red Kuri squash, at right, is one of two I picked up. I cut both in half and roasted them that evening; we had one squash for supper with pork sausages, and I tucked the other in the fridge for later on in the week, which is now.
If I didn’t have the squash on hand and ready to go, I would probably add a tomato. And as luck would have it, I discovered part of a head of escarole in the vegetable crisper. Its slight bitterness is very nice with the chard, although minerally spinach would be good, too; the combination of chard and spinach is a very old one.
As far as the polenta goes, any type except quick-cooking will do. Coincidentally, my stash comes from another Georgeanne, “The Original Grit Girl” Georgeanne Ross, of Oxford, Mississippi, who grinds polenta (as well as cornmeal, grits, and masa) to order. It has a deep, sweet, pure corn flavor that is just soulful—there is no other word for it.
Polenta takes a good 45 minutes to cook, which may seem daunting on a weeknight, but it is a surefire way to decompress. Polenta won’t be rushed, and as the corn slowly absorbs the water, you have plenty of time to pour a glass of wine, turn on some music or NPR, and prep the greens and whatever else you are using. It’s a satisfying way to end the day.
Adapted from Georgeanne Brennan
This recipe makes plenty of polenta. It sets up as it cools, so spoon the leftovers into a broilerproof baking dish and refrigerate. When ready to use, sprinkle with grated Parm, bake until heated through, then broil until the top is lightly browned, or simply cut the chilled polenta into squares and panfry. Drizzle with tomato sauce, and you have another meal.
6 cups water
coarse salt and freshly ground pepper
1½ cups polenta (not quick-cooking)
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
a generous handful of finely grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2 garlic cloves
1 small onion
1 bunch chard, washed, dried, and stems removed
½ head escarole or other bitter green (dandelion, chicory) or 1 bunch spinach, trimmed
2 to 3 sweet Italian frying peppers (shown above) or 1 bell pepper (any color but green)
leftover roasted winter squash or 1 ripe tomato, if desired
extra-virgin olive oil
1. Get the polenta working: Bring the water, seasoned with salt, to a boil in a heavy pot. Add the polenta in a thin, steady trickle, stirring with a wooden spoon, and cook over moderate heat a couple of minutes. Reduce the heat and cook the polenta at a bare simmer, stirring frequently, until it’s very thick, smooth, and pulls away from the side of the pot while being stirred, about 45 minutes.
2. Meanwhile, chop the garlic, onion, and chard stems. Roughly chop the greens. Halve the peppers lengthwise and discard the seeds and ribs. Cut their flesh lengthwise into thin strips. Cut the leftover squash or tomato into small chunks, if using.
3. About 10 minutes before the polenta is ready, heat a nice glug of oil in a large skillet over moderately high heat. Add the garlic and onion and let them get along for a minute or two. Add the chard stems and peppers. Sauté for a few minutes, then add the greens. Season with salt, reduce the heat, and cover the pot. Cook until the greens are wilted and verging on tender, about 5 minutes. Add the roasted squash or tomato and cook until warmed through. Stir gently to combine.
4. When the polenta is done, remove it from the heat and stir in the butter, then the cheese. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the polenta in a warmed shallow serving bowl and top it with the sautéed vegetables.