I worked a couple of nights a week for the past four years at a little Thai restaurant in Chesterland called My Thai. It was a lovely place for a second job – the staff and owners were incredible, the food was amazing and the customers were great as well. I kept all of my tips in an overturned teacup in my cupboard at home (now you know my secret).
First this little cup of money was my travel cash, but later it became my farmer’s market stash. Every Saturday and Sunday during the summer I would grab a few bills and head to the North Union market in Shaker Square or Chagrin Falls. However, in August this stash began to dwindle as I prepared to leave northeast Ohio and the US dollar behind for a while. Therefore, on my last few trips to the market I was a bit choosier than I normally am (and I was also too lazy for an ATM). So, when I saw that Shagbark Seed & Mill was selling polenta at Shaker Square a few weeks ago, I went down to my last quarter to buy it.
Polenta is an unsung hero of dinnertime. It takes a bit more time to cook than a lot of other meals, but its preparation is virtually effortless. It can be made perfectly simply with just a bit of butter, salt and cheese or very grand with roasted garlic and wild mushrooms and herbs. You can eat it cooked as a mash or turn it out on a cutting board and let it stiffen into blocks (that can be fried, if desired – and yes, do desire this).
Due to polenta’s versatility (and the abundance of beautiful produce at the market), I decided to make two separate sauces for the polenta – one a dandelion green, basil and garlic pesto-like paste and the other a hearty and spicy stewed tomato, shallot and pepper sauce. Plus cheese – because cheese and polenta are best friends always.
Almost all of the produce I purchased for these dishes – from the dandelion greens to the spicy red chili peppers – came from Snake Hill Farm, which is one of my favorite stops at both the Shaker and Chagrin markets. They are organic and produce a variety of heirlooms that I have difficulty finding anywhere else. They are also always friendly, knowledgeable and ready with recipes for all of their beautiful vegetables.
The one item of produce that I did not purchase from Snake Hill was the garlic – that item is from Hansen Greenhouse, which produces more than a dozen fantastic varieties of garlic. I always pick up a few different heads. I used their ‘spicy Thai’ variety here, as it has great flavor and bite. The folks at Hansen are very kind and will explain each type to you and what it’s used for. I can never leave the market without a few different kinds in my bag.
The cheese is from the same producer as my last Market to Table recipe – Yellow House Cheese. This one is called ‘Pleasant Street’ and is very similar to a Manchego, which is one of my favorite types of cheese. It works wonderfully with polenta. As I noted last time, Yellow House is a wonderful producer and their hard cheeses are tough to beat.
Finally, the polenta is from Shagbark Seed & Mill as noted above. An Ohio producer, their heirloom flours, cereals and beans are always full of flavor. The polenta was simply beautiful. It’s made of Wapsie Valley corn and is ground on a stone mill – giving it an excellent coarse texture, which cooked beautifully.
Feel free to play around with whatever produce is in season near you. Polenta will take to almost whatever you give it. Enjoy playing with your food!
Polenta Two Ways
- You can substitute a variety of greens for the dandelion greens – kale, chard, mustard greens – even parsley would work well. Make sure to remove all coarse stems, but since you are using a food processor, you can leave most of the stems as long as they are not too woody.
- The dandelion green puree was adapted from April Bloomfield’s fantastic cookbook, A Girl and Her Greens. She makes a kale puree, where she blanches the kale with the garlic before pureeing. I skip this step as its a bit more than I wanted to do that day. It did not turn out any worse for wear.
- You may want to wear gloves when seeding the chilis – they can burn your hands.
- You may use a variety of hard cheese here – parmigiano and pecorino would work as well.
- Polenta splatters when cooked, so keep a lid handy.
For the polenta:
1 1/2 c. dry polenta
2 tsp. salt
6 c. water
1 c. finely grated hard cheese, such as manchego
salt, pepper & extra virgin olive oil
For the spicy cherry tomato sauce
2 T. extra virgin olive oil
2-3 spicy peppers, seeded and finely chopped (or to taste)
1 shallot, peeled and finely chopped
1 pint sweet cherry tomatoes (such as sun gold)
1 purple bell pepper (or any color that’s not green), seeded, veined and chopped
salt & pepper
For the dandelion green puree:
1 bunch dandelion greens, tough lower stems removed
1 cup basil leaves, packed
6 cloves of garlic, peeled
1/3 to 1/2 c. extra virgin olive oil
salt & pepper
- First, make the polenta. Bring water to a boil in a medium saucepan with a lid. Once boiling, add salt. Next, slowly whisk in polenta. Turn heat to low. Let simmer, whisking occasionally, until polenta is smooth and no longer feels grainy when pressed between the fingers. This can take anywhere from 30-60 minutes. Whisk in additional water a 1/4 cup at a time, if needed.
- Next, start the tomato sauce. Heat the olive oil in a medium saute pan over medium-high heat. Add the chili peppers and shallots and let cook for 2-3 minutes, or until fragrant.
- Next add the tomatoes and season with salt. Cook until the tomatoes begin to burst (you can help this along by pressing them with a wooden spoon). Add the bell pepper. Cook mixture until all of the tomatoes are very soft, the vegetables are tender and the mixture has thickened significantly, about 20 minutes. Keep warm.
- Finally make the pureed greens. Add the garlic cloves and dandelion greens to a food processor. Pulse until finely chopped. Add basil and pulse again. Drizzle in the oil until you get a smooth puree (like a pesto). Season with salt and pepper. Set aside.
- When all of the components are complete, spoon polenta into bowls. Serve sauces, cheese and good olive oil alongside so that people can top their polenta as desired. Buon appetito!
Serves 4-6. Sauces will keep for a few days in the fridge, topped off with a bit of oil.