Monday, May 7, 2012

A not-so-new thing.

Some times I feel like it is impossible for me to invent something new.  Naturally I'm not the only one to think so - the Bible has a quote about it...

Maybe I am just more aware of it lately.  Compared to fifteen, even ten years ago, the knowledge available to us now is so vast, and peoples' ability to access and disseminate information is so widespread (though, granted, far from universal), it has even changed what we remember (see article).

So whenever I think of a "new" recipe idea, I tend to google it - that's the graduate student in me.  What have people done before?  What do I like about those recipes?  What do I dislike?  Do I have a majority of the ingredients?  Has it been done before?  Secretly, I always hope that the answer to the last will be 'no,' or at least 'not as far as the internet knows' - which is pretty far.  My latest attempt to stump the food blogging world was the Polenta Frittata, a fancy way of saying that I have unprecedented quantities of chard, eggs, and polenta lying around.

Guess what?  It's been done.  (Though there were fewer hits than usual.)

It's frustrating in a way.  But it also calls to mind a book that I'm half-reading (you know, where it sits in the bathroom, and you open in randomly when you're brushing your teeth) - My Story as Told by Water by David James Duncan.  At one point, he's recalling a conversation he had with a professor with philosophy, Henry.  Henry is unusual - he tends to say beautiful and profound things in the throes of a conversation, but forgets what he says fairly immediately.  He totally lacks a sense of possession of his words.  Duncan, being a great fan of Henry's analysis of a certain book (A River Runs Through It), takes it into his head to prove to Henry how amazing he is - even if he doesn't realize it - by repeating his words and insights.  When Duncan concludes, Henry applauds him, and refuses to take credit for the performance that had just occurred.  Duncan then begins talking directly to the reader (I quote):
And the more I thought his refusal over, the more impressed I was with it.  The trout we catch in these hard-fished Montana rivers have often been caught by some previous woman or man; the day we catch one ourselves, we are no less alone on the river, and the trout is no less beautiful for its previous capture.  In Henry I'd met a man with no sense of proprietorship in the presence of true words.  In one sense I was, as I'd said, a mere parrot, but in another sense I'd plucked Henry's insight off the radio and taken it to heart.  Henry honored this second capture as the solo philosophical event it was.  He was loving a neighbor's insight as one loves one's own.
I find a particular resonance with the sentence about catching a fish that has already been taken and released.  My attempt at a polenta frittata is no less of an accomplishment - there is value in a journey undertaken, no matter how many times it has been traveled by others.  And my experiences cooking and eating, photographing and writing are no less worthy for the similar endeavors completed previously.

It is with joy that I make my own experience, and share it.

Polenta Frittata
A blend of many recipes, to be honest.

1/2 recipe of grilling polenta (recipe follows)

1 large bunch of chard, stems removed
1 medium yellow onion
1 small carrot (for the look - bell pepper would work just as well or better)
7 eggs
1/2 cup whole milk
1 cup cheddar cheese, grated
1 tsp lemon juice (optional)
12 stalks of asparagus, whole
Cayenne (optional)
Parmesan cheese (optional)

To Serve:
Salsa roja (recipe follows)

  1. Preheat oven to 350F.
  2. Clean and dry the chard thoroughly, and chop into small pieces (1/2"x1" or so - bite size).  (I tend to use Swiss chard, partly because that is what we have most of, but partly because rainbow chard may color your frittata in ways undesirable.)
  3. Dice the onion and the carrots.
  4. Heat olive oil in a large saute pan.  Add the onion, and saute until translucent.  Add the carrots, cook until almost done.
  5. Add the chard (in batches if necessary) and cook until wilted and tender (try not to add any water.  If you do, drain the vegetables before adding to the egg mixture.)
  6. Meanwhile, cook the asparagus (steam or saute them), and mix together the eggs, milk, cheddar, and salt and pepper to taste (I used ~1/2 tsp salt and 1/4 tsp pepper) in a large bowl.
  7. When it has cooked, add the chard-onion-carrot mixture to the egg mixture and mix to combine.  Add the lemon juice.  Return to the saute pan to warm it.
  8. Heat oil in an oven proof, large skillet (mine was cast iron, 9", and 3" deep).  Cover the bottom (as completely as possible) with squares of polenta.  Saute the polenta briefly, flipping once.
  9. When the egg-chard mixture is warm, pour into the polenta skillet.
  10. Arrange the asparagus on top, and sprinkle with cayenne, if using.  Grate parmesan over the top, again, if using.
  11. Bake 20-25 minutes, or until the eggs have set (try not to overbake!  Overbaked frittata is not delicious).
  12. Let cool briefly, then cut and serve with a dollop of salsa roja.

From Fields of Greens by Annie Somerville

6 cups water (5.5 cups if you intend to grill the polenta)
1.5 tsp salt
1.5 cups polenta (coarse cornmeal)
1/4 tsp pepper
Cayenne (optional)
2 Tbl unsalted butter
1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese, about 1.5 ounces

  1. Lightly oil a 9"x13" baking dish and set aside.
  2. Bring the water to a rapid boil in a large, deep sauce-pan.
  3. Add the salt, then add the polenta in a stream, whisking constantly.
  4. Reduce the heat and cook at a low boil (think bubbling mud pits) for 20-25 minutes, stirring frequently, and adding more water if absolutely necessary (but really, only if you fear burning and a cement-like apocalypse), until the grains have opened up and the polenta is fairly smooth.
  5. Remove the pan from the heat, and add the pepper, butter, cheese, and cayenne (if using.  I usually don't).
  6. Pour the hot polenta into the baking dish, and let cool.
  7. For grilling, cut the polenta into squares (~2x2").
Note: When I originally made this, I made a double recipe, which is an absurd amount of polenta.  The polenta frittata was a desperate attempt to get rid of some of it.  I'm not sure how long the polenta keeps in the refrigerator - I had used it all within 7 days.  But it will keep at least that long.

Salsa Roja:
Adapted from Fields of Greens by Annie Somerville

2 Tbl olive oil
1 medium yellow onion, chopped small
1 tsp ground cumin
10 large garlic cloves
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes (I like Muir Glen fire-roasted tomatoes)
1/4-1/2 cup New Mexico Chile puree
1/8-1/4 cup chipotle puree

  1. To make the New Mexico Chile puree, take 10-20 dried New Mexico chiles, de-seed and de-stem them, then soak them in boiling water for 20-30 minutes.  Transfer the chiles using a slotted spoon to a blender.  Add a little of the chile water, and attempt to blend.  If it doesn't work, add a little more water.  The idea is to get a thick paste - similar to tomato paste, maybe a little thinner.  If there are large pieces of skin, strain the chile paste before using.  As far as I can tell, this will keep indefinitely in the fridge, and makes an excellent basis for red enchilada sauce.
  2. To make the chipotle puree, take a can of chipotles in adobo sauce, and blend the contents to a paste.  This will keep indefinitely in the fridge.
  3. Heat the olive oil in a medium sauce pan.  Add the onion, cumin, and 1 teaspoon of salt.  Saute over medium until the onion begins to become clear and release its juices (say, five minutes).  
  4. Add the garlic, and saute another five or so minutes, until the onion is soft.  
  5. Add the tomatoes and the chile purees (I recommend adding the smaller amount to start, then adjusting for flavor (and spice!) as you like).
  6. Simmer for an hour, adding water as necessary so that the sauce is a consistency of your liking.
  7. Serve at warm or at room temperature (it makes a great topping for grilled polenta - not just the polenta frittata!).
A few kitchen notes:
The salsa roja freezes very well.  Since the recipe makes about 4 cups, you might well want to put some away!

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