Yesterday for example, I was making one of my favorite salads, one that requires the boiling of lentils and bulgar, which normally isn't a problem for me. But yesterday, something caught my eye and I left the lentils to boil madly away on the POWER BURNER for way, way too long. I had nearly forgotten about them entirely until I smelt something incredibly unpleasant, and apparently on fire. My lentils were toast, and so was my dad's favorite pot (sorry dad!). So lesson of the day: the power burner is not for the faint of heart.
I should really give myself the benefit of the doubt, though. I know what flavors taste good together, and I can create some wicked things off the top of my head, but more often then I'd like to admit things go awry, especially as of late. Without the guidance of a cookbook, I daydream, I sit down and do homework, and I wander off into another room while my grilled cheese sandwich dies a horrible death on the stove. My head, MY HEAD people, is in warp speed 24 hours a day, trying to plan and organize how I am going to get done what needs to get done. During the school year I am always one step ahead in my mind... I have to be. Whist reading chapters from my Psychology textbook, I am thinking up thesis statements for English essays. And while boiling lentils for my salad, I am watching What Not to Wear on TLC.
This goes to say that even though these days my head if often up in the clouds, sometimes I am able to focus. And when that happens, I am able to create. And sometimes, if I'm lucky, I end up with a masterpiece.
Speaking of masterpieces, my dad, for those of you who don't know him personally, is clinical counsellor by day and a gourmet chef by night. Anything and everything I know about food, I learnt from him. I am a shameless"food snob" because he made me that way. He is one of those people who you could set loose in a cookbook-less kitchen blindfolded and you would, without a doubt, be in for one of the most incredible meals of your life. He is the first person I share my kitchen tales with and the only person I know who gets more excited about food then I do.
In my house, my dad is the one that does the cooking every night. He rarely ever cracks open a cookbook, which in my opinion is an incredibly enviable skill. Every single night, without fail, we are served an incredible meal. His food is elegant, beautiful and simple. "Less is more," he always says. He believes in eating local, something more of us should strive for, and last year for the first time ever we started our very own vegetable garden in our backyard. It was our pride and joy, with many a meal being focused on the fruits, or vegetables in this case, of our labor. He is never without an idea, or a plan. He knows what he is doing and he is never, ever distracted.
A few days ago he suggested I make myself fried polenta with a slow-cooked tomato sauce for dinner. I've never made polenta in my life, and to say I am slightly afraid of the stuff is an understatement. I feel polenta has the tendency to be tasteless, starchy, and gluey in texture, making it the perfect candidate for my loathing. But my dad assured me it would be good, and I mostly always consider his word as the gospel truth as far as the kitchen is concerned. He gave me a fool proof ratio: 4 cups water, 1 cup cornmeal, and don't stop stirring, even if your arm feels like it is about to fall off. He told me to add a healthy dose of parmesan and black pepper for flavor. Then for a sauce, he told me to slowly heat diced Roma tomatoes, adding basil and garlic until it was thick and flavorful. It would be simple, but simple is often best. And so I improvised (improvised!) the whole thing, with major props of course, to my brilliant father.
What followed was bliss, sheer bliss. After a quick fry in hot pan, the polenta turned golden brown and had a thin crisp outer layer. It held up wonderfully against the ridiculously tasty tomato sauce that was spooned generously, messily over it's top. It was charming and homey- the perfect meal for a late winter's night.
It's amazing what comes about when we take the time to focus. No burnt lentils, wrecked pans, or fleeting thoughts. Just simple little masterpieces.
Black Pepper Parmesan Polenta with Tomato Sauce
For this recipe, I didn't really use any measurements, especially for the sauce. What I have given below are approximations. I don't think you can really go wrong with a pan filled with roma tomatoes, olive oil and garlic, so fear not. Improvisation isn't all that scary...
I like to serve this as a light meal, all on it's own with a nice mixed greens salad on the side. My family sauteed up some Halibut with lemon juice, salt, and pepper last week and ate polenta on the side, which was also lovely.
4 cups water
1 cup polenta
1/2 teaspoon salt
a hefty dose of black pepper
1/4 cup fresh parmesan cheese
1/4 cup butter
Boil water in a medium sized pot and add cornmeal. Stirring constantly, cook cornmeal for 15 minutes, or until fully cooked. Remove from heat and add salt, pepper, parmesan, and butter, stirring well to incorporate. Working quickly (polenta will begin to firm up) pour polenta into a greased 9 inch square baking dish. Allow to cool. Polenta will become very firm.
For Tomato Sauce
8-10 Roma tomatoes, diced
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 cloves garlic, chopped
A generous splash of balsamic vinegar
1 teaspoon sugar
1/4 cup basil, chopped
salt and pepper to taste
Heat olive oil in a large saucepan over medium high heat. Add the tomatoes and garlic and cook, stirring occasionally for about 15 minutes. Add balsamic and sugar, stirring to incorporate. Cook for another 5-10 minutes. The sauce should start to thicken. You want the flavors to have time to mix and mingle and the tomatoes to become soft. Add the basil, salt, and pepper and remove from heat.
Heat a large sauce pan with a splash of olive oil over medium heat. Slice cooled polenta into squares (depending on how big a pan you used to let the polenta set, you should get 8 or so small pieces), remove from dish, and place in heated pan. You want the polenta to become golden and slightly crisp on the outside. Cook for 2-3 minutes and flip, allowing polenta to cook for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and serve. Top with generous spoonfuls of tomato sauce and enjoy.
Yeild: Serves 3-4 as a main dish, and 5-6 as a side