Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Polenta with Red Pepper and Walking Onion Pesto

Those who know me well know that I love making things from scratch - especially things that are often available in convenience forms!  Not only does it bring me a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction, but it also tastes infinitely better when you make something yourself.  You also have the added benefit of controlling exactly what is going into your dish (versus premade convenience food that often has preservatives and other junk). 

Polenta is one of those ridiculously simple but wonderfully flavorful Italian staples.  While it is time-consuming to prepare from scratch, once you try your own you will never go back to that nasty stuff in a tube!  The coarse texture, complex nuttiness, and comforting warmth of scratch-made polenta straight from your stove is miles away from the over-processed and flavorless stuff you find at the store.  When making this recipe, be sure to start with the best grain you can find!  I used Anson Mills' Red Trentino Flint Polenta Integrale, but the varieties are endless.  Just make sure you look for a coarse corn meal.  The label might say anything from "corn grits" to "corn meal" to straight "polenta" but they are all pretty much the exact same thing.  Just make sure you do not buy any "instant" polenta as it will not apply well to a slow-cooked recipe (but hey... if it is all you have time for, at least it will be better than the tubed stuff!).

My favorite way to eat this polenta is to have leftovers for breakfast with a poached egg on top.  It also makes an excellent dinner alongside a fresh, green salad. 

Polenta with Red Pepper and Walking Onion Pesto
1 cup toasted walnuts
3-4 walking onions, chopped (about 1 cup - may substitute green onions)
3 large roasted red peppers
2 lemons, zested and juiced
2 tsp salt
1/2 cup olive oil

7 cups water
1 T salt
1 3/4 cups coarse cornmeal (red polenta integrale works well)

Start the polenta.  In a large, heavy-bottomed pot, bring the water to a boil.  Add salt and pour polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly.  Switch to a wooden spoon and stir constantly for two minutes.  Reduce heat to medium-low (so that you still get a vigorous bubble but not a full boil) and cover.  Check every five to ten minutes and stir vigorously for a minute or so each time.  The polenta is done when most of the moisture is absorbed and the mixture clings to the spoon, anywhere from 30 to 45 minutes. 

Meanwhile, make the pesto.  In a food processor, pulse the walnuts, onions, red peppers, lemon juice and zest, and salt until evenly chopped.  In a slow stream with the processor running, add the olive oil.  Scrape the sides of the bowl with a rubber spatula and process again until pesto is evenly blended.

When polenta is cooked, add 1 cup of the pesto to the pot and mix well.  You can serve immediately at this point or continue to the next step for polenta squares (this can also just be done with whatever you have left-over).  Grease a 9x9 square baking dish with a little olive oil and pour the polenta into the dish while it is still hot.  Use a spatula to flatten the top, then allow to cool in the refrigerator for at least 3 hours or overnight before cutting into squares.  To serve polenta squares, fry in a little olive oil until lightly browned on each side, or just gently warm them up in the oven or microwave.  Serve with a poached egg or a green salad (tossed with a little leftover pesto) for a light meal.

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