Painless Polenta

I just had to stop and pass on this memorable method for cooking polenta.  Finally, the nightmares are over: no more burbling projectiles of searing polenta. With no effort—and no pain—creamy, smooth polenta is ready in 30 minutes.

In cooking your polenta, it’s important to select the right type. There are instant polentas that cook up in a flash, for which this whole episode is likely a waste of your time. Coarser grains, such as authentic polenta, stone-ground cornmeal, or grits require a longer cooking time. That is what we are interested in here, we want the more traditional style for rich flavor and divine mouth-feel.

And, there is no sticking or burning polenta, either…

This may sound like an infomercial, but I have nothing to gain but good food. The secret is in the multi-cooker and the trick is to use a bit more water than usual. Bring it all to a simmer, stir in the salt and polenta, then seal the lid and bring it to pressure. Let it burble away undisturbed for 20 minutes. Once complete, allow the pressure to release naturally (about 10 minutes). In this magical time, the polenta settles down, expands, and blooms. Carefully remove the lid, bring it all together with a wooden spoon and whisk in a little butter and grated cheese.

Now, you are free to do with it what you will. This polenta is good enough to enjoy without a lot of fuss, but the options are endless.

Spoon it loosely mounded into a bowl porridge-style topped with cheese, or with your favorite mushroom topping or tomato sauce.

Polenta thickens as it sits, so you can pour it into a flat pan or dish to firm up and cut into shapes later.

Make crostini type bites or cut into fingers for dipping. Or, form into cakes for a future side. It’s all good!

Creamy Polenta

Ingredients
5 cups water
1 tsp salt
1 cup coarse polenta
2 Tbsp butter
¼ cup grated Parmesan

Instructions

  1. Place salted water in liner of Instant Pot or other multi-cooker. Set to Hi Saute or equivalent and bring to a simmer. Whisk in polenta to dissolve any potential lumps.
  2. Seal lid, set to HI Pressure for 20 minutes.  When complete, turn off unit and disconnect. Let stand 10 minutes, then slowly release pressure.  Before opening, tap or shift pot to remove pockets of heat that may have formed in the polenta.  Carefully open and stir down with long wooden spoon.
  3. Whisk the butter and cheese into the polenta to incorporate and make smooth.
  4. Serve in spoonfuls, or pour onto oiled or plastic lined baking sheet, chill and let set. Cut into shapes and reheat in 375°F oven, or in a skillet over medium high with a coating of butter or oil until heated and toasted on each side.  Serves 4 or more.

Grill Time: Salad Time

It’s Memorial Weekend, so it must be barbecue time.

Here’s a versatile little salad with bright summer undertones for just such an occasion. It is affectionately referred to as my Mediterranean salad since it includes a combination of sweet tomatoes and peppers—and quite often cucumbers.

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If you are including cucumbers, add them just prior to serving for best results. I’ve kept the herb contribution fairly minimal in this recipe, but I actually prefer far more whenever possible, and mint is especially good. A lemony dressing is essential to really bringing it all alive.

In an effort to include more whole grain alternatives to meals, here plump wheat berries balance nicely with the garbanzo beans. The berries require some advance cooking time: 60 minutes on the stovetop, and 35 minutes under pressure. Lacking that, replace the wheat berries with quicker alternatives like bulgur wheat or couscous.

The salad can be made a day ahead and it holds nicely.  As with many Mediterranean dishes this one shines at room temperature, making it ideal for a day trip or as a side for relaxed outdoor grilling and dining.

Its colorful composition works well as part of an easy snacking platter with sliced meats, cheeses, condiments and such.

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Or, along-side the salad, add small romaine leaves and pita crisps for scooping up bite sized portions. Happy Memorial Day!

Mediterranean Salad

Ingredients

  • 1½ cups cooked wheat berries, couscous, or bulgur wheat
  • ¾ cup garbanzo beans, drained
  • ½ cup baby tomatoes, half
  • ⅓ cup green, red, or mixed baby peppers, seed, chop
  • ½ cup parsley or more, chop
  • ⅓ cup green onions or 1/2 shallot, small chop

Dressing

  • 1/4 cup lemon juice
  • 1/4 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, mash & mince
  • 1 tsp fresh thyme
  • 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes
  •  1/4 tsp sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Accompaniments: Fresh romaine, Bibb lettuce, or spinach leaves; Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, parsley, lemon slices

Instructions

  1. Combine dressing in a small container and set aside.
  2. In a medium bowl place the wheat berries through green onions, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss.
  3. Drizzle about ⅓ cup dressing over the salad and toss to lightly coat. Refrigerate a couple of hours or overnight.  Adjust seasoning, add dressing as needed.
  4. Serve chilled or room temperature with a light drizzle of fresh lemon juice over the top.   Serves 4.

A question of quinoa

I hope we have gotten past quinoa’s trendy phase and can settle down and fully accept it for how great it really is—stellar nutritional virtues and all.  Judging from most market shelves, quinoa has definitely secured a presence and has moved from novelty to staple status.

We know quinoa is incredibly versatile; its slight nuttiness blends well with just about anything. I’ve gotten in the habit of cooking up a batch and incorporating it in meals during the week.  It works in a salad, maybe a grain bowl, part of a dinner, and even for breakfast.

Another personal motive is to hold back enough for my precious Quinoa Bars, an old favorite. I’m always glad to have them in the fridge. There will be times in the course of a week that I’ll be in a wild rush, and know I can reach in and grab one without missing a  beat.

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Quinoa Fruit Bars

The moisture from the pre-cooked quinoa seems to keep these bars moist but not soggy—they hold very well without drying out after a few days, and the slight nuttiness blends well with the oat flakes and dried fruits. This last time, I went for a combo of dates and dried cranberries then topped them with bits of sliced candied oranges stashed away from a Trader Joe’s offering.

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There’s still a lot of discussion about rinsing quinoa to remove a natural bitter coating from the seeds. I buy mine in bulk and have no idea whether this has been done. I usually forget to rinse, but as or yet have not noticed any pervasive off taste.

So here is the latest “new and improved” version of Quinoa Fruit Bars. They are even easier to make and enjoy!

Quinoa Fruit Bars  

Ingredients

  • 2/3 cup all-purpose flour, or half whole wheat or other flour
  • 1/2 tsp baking soda
  • 1/2 tsp each allspice and dried ginger
  • 1/4 tsp salt
  • 1 cup quick oats flakes
  • 1 large egg
  • 1/3 cup yogurt
  • 1/2 cup agave or honey
  • 1 tsp vanilla extract
  • 1 cup cooked white quinoa
  • 3/4 cup dried fruit: chopped dates, dried cranberries, raisins, apricots or candied ginger

Garnish: 1 Tbsp Demerara or other coarse sugar or candied fruit garnish

Instructions

  1. Preheat oven to 350°F. Line 8”x8″ pan with non-stick foil or spray with non-stick oil.
  2. In medium bowl whisk together flour, baking soda, spices and salt.  Mix in the oats. Add the dried fruit.
  3. In a large bowl, whisk the egg, then stir in yogurt, agave, vanilla, and cooked quinoa.
  4. With spatula, fold the dry ingredients into the wet just to incorporate.  Spread evenly into pan and sprinkle Demerara sugar over the top.
  5. Bake 30-35 minutes, until it begins to pull away from the sides of the pan and the top begins to brown.  Cool on rack and slice. Yield: 16-18 bars

Berries, as in Wheat

Lately I’ve been reading up on wheat berries and have learned I need and want these powerhouses in my morning muesli and more…

According to Livestrong.com, “Wheat berries are rich in vitamins B1 and B3; and the minerals magnesium, phosphorus, copper, manganese and selenium.” What that means is they are valuable to overall body care, i.e., nervous system metabolism, blood pressure, cardiovascular and blood formation, bones, you name it.

wheat berries grain

There are different types of wheat berries, too: hard and soft berries, which grow at different times of the year and serve different purposes. Lest we get too far into the weeds, suffice to say, I settled on hard or red wheat berries.

Since wheat berries can take 60 minutes or longer on the stove top, I knew this was a job for the Instant Pot. With the pot loaded and ready to go, I’ve learned it’s much faster to bring it all to a boil before proceeding. It’s then a simple matter of setting the timer to 35 minutes with a 10 minute natural release and walking away. It’s sooo nice to let the pressure cooker work its magic and return to a generous 3 cups of plump chewy kernels.

Med wheat berry plate

In that amount of time I was able to establish a plan for my Mediterranean wheat berry salad. I channeled my pending tiny summer garden, still on the horizon—one with the usual crop of tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, green onions, plenty of flowers and herbs. Ahhh, I can’t wait!

Altogether the vegetables’ earthy flavors harmonize and blend well with the hearty wheat berry kernels while accents of Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, and lemon do their part to brighten and shine. The salad holds incredibly well and is equally good chilled or at room temperature. It’s an ideal side for grilling and outdoor dining.

Mediterranean Wheat Berry Salad

  • 1½ cups cooked wheat berries
  • ¾ cup garbanzo beans, rinse & drain
  • ½ cup baby tomatoes, halve
  • ½ cucumber, seed, chop
  • ⅓ cup mixed baby peppers, seed, chop
  • ½ cup parsley, chop
  • ⅓ cup green onions, chop
  • 1/3 cup lemon juice
  • 1/3 cup olive oil
  • 1 clove garlic, crush, mince
  • sea salt and freshly ground pepper

Accompaniments: Fresh spinach leaves, Kalamata olives, feta or paneer cheese, parsley, lemon slices

For dressing, combine lemon juice, evoo, garlic, salt and pepper in a small bowl, adjust seasoning it should be lemony.

For salad, place the wheat berries through green onions in a medium bowl, sprinkle with salt and pepper and toss. Drizzle half the dressing over the salad and toss to lightly coat, add more as needed.

Refrigerate several hours or overnight. Adjust seasoning, add dressing as needed. Serve chilled or room temperature. To serve, pile on a spinach lined plate, garnish with olives, parsley and squeeze lemon juice over the top. Serves 4 or more.

Variations: substitute 1-1/2 cup prepared couscous or bulgur wheat. Add 2 Tbsp or more mint, finely chopped and/or 1 tsp grated lemon. To the dressing add 1/8 tsp cumin, 1/4 tsp red pepper flakes.

Mirror, Mirror on the Wall…

Anyone familiar with this site knows that homemade pizza is one of my favorite indulgences.  I tend to think of it toward the end of the week—with the unrealistic plan of enjoying leftovers on the weekend. That so rarely happens.

The pupose of today’s post is is to eliminate my on-going irritation concerning the whereabouts of my current pizza dough recipe. More exact, I tend to misplace or lose track of my latest pizza-dough-du-jour because it regularly changes. It’s a mirror of my life: as my life evolves, so goes my pizza dough.

Lately, I’m making a dough that uses instant yeast. It is brilliant because it requires no advance proofing of yeast in warm water, thus eliminating 10 to 15 minutes lead time.  The instant yeast is combined with the dry ingredients and blended with hot water (120 to 130 degrees). The dough is briefly mixed, then given a quick knead to get the gluten going, and left to rest for only 10 minutes—opposed to the usual 30 to 60 minute rise.

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Ten minute pizza dough

The longer traditional yeast development is regarded essential for optimum rise, texture, and flavor.  However, this dough has fine flavor; it is quick, malleable and can be patted out quite thin, all for which I give high marks. I like to keep the flour at least 50% all-purpose or bread flour, then fill in the remainder with whole wheat, semolina, a bit of flax meal, or other fun flours.

When I have my act together I prefer to pre-bake the crust for 8 to 10 minutes, which moves past the ‘fussing with dough’ phase and wards off potential sogginess.

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Pre-baked crust: a blank canvas

Pizza is ready when I am.

Either way, then it’s a simple matter of gathering toppings and baking it all off in a hot oven for 15 or 20 minutes. In the throes of a busy week this dough wins hands down.

Here is my current Quick and Easy Pizza Dough, ready for topping.

Quick and Easy Pizza Dough

Ingredients

  • 1½ – 2 cups all-purpose flour
  • 2 teaspoons instant yeast
  • 1 teaspoon sugar
  • 3/4 teaspoon salt
  • 3/4 cup warm water (120-130 degrees F)
  • 2 teaspoons olive oil

Instructions

  1. In a medium bowl, mix together 1 cup of the flour, yeast, sugar, and salt. Add the hot water and olive oil and stir to combine with spatula.
  2. Continue adding the flour until the dough just clears the sides of the bowl. In bowl or on a floured surface, knead for about three minutes, until the dough is soft and slightly sticky without leaving a lot of residue on your fingers.
  3. Let the dough rest in the bowl for 10 minutes, lightly covered with a towel.
  4. While the dough rests, preheat the oven to 400-425 degrees F. Well oil a pizza pan or baking sheet.  With floured hands pat the dough into the pizza pan. Add sauce and toppings of choice and bake in lower third of oven for 15-20 minutes, until center is bubbly and crust is golden brown.    Yield: 1 large or 2 medium

To pre-bake the crust: Well-oil 1-2 pizza pans. With floured hands, pat the dough into a large pan, or divide the dough in half and pat with floured hands into two oiled medium pans. Bake at 400-425 degree oven until firmly set but not colored, 8 to 10 minutes. Let cool on rack or store lightly wrapped until needed. A well-sealed crust can be frozen up to a month.

Honey Spiced Cakes

If you are a fan of pain d’epices, the classic French sweet bread made with honey and spice, then here’s a version that will make your head spin. Part of the appeal of the pain d’epices loaf is that it is designed to improve with age. However, once you’ve had a bite of one, it’s unlikely that will ever happen.

These smaller, personal sized cakes receive their distinct identity from an enticing blend of spices featuring aniseed and compounded with rye flour.  The healthy dose of honey adds enough richness and moisture to make it hard to believe they contain not a whit of butter or oil.

This particular Spanish twist comes by way of David Lebovitz and his great blog of the same name.  The cakes are one of a fascinating collection from  Chef Daniel Olivella in his new cookbook, Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.  Olivella, born in Spain, shares his grandmother’s thrifty sweet cakes originally made with stale bread saturated in red wine. Daniel now lives in Austin, Texas where he operates Barlata Tapas Bar.

Rather than red wine syrup, David chose to roll his variation in sugar and then dip the tops in a cider syrup.  I passed on all that, since mine were plenty moist and sweet from the honey.   I also used smaller silicone molds, which hold about ¼ cup when filled, and less than a standard muffin cup.

For a final touch of sparkle,  I lightly dipped the baby cake tops in turbinado sugar crystals—and called it good!

Honey Spiced Cakes

Inspired by David Lebovitz’s adaptation of Daniel Olivella’s version in Catalan Food: Culture and Flavors from the Mediterranean.

Ingredients
For the cakes
1 cup honey
1/4 cup light brown sugar, packed
1 cup all-purpose flour
1 cup rye flour
2 1/2 teaspoons baking powder
2 1/2 teaspoons ground cinnamon
2 1/2 teaspoons ground ginger
1/2 teaspoon ground aniseed
1/2 teaspoon ground coriander
1/2 cup whole or low fat milk
2 large eggs, at room temperature
Optional syrup
1/2 cup sparkling apple cider, hard or non-alcoholic
1/2 cup, plus 1/4 cup granulated sugar
Finish variation:  1/3 cup turbinado sugar

Instructions

  1. To make the cakes, preheat the oven to 350ºF. Use small silicone cups or line a muffin tin with 12 cupcake liners.
  2. In a small bowl, whisk together the honey and brown sugar. If your honey is super thick, you may wish to warm it slightly before mixing.
  3. Sift together the all-purpose and rye flour with the baking powder, cinnamon, aniseed, nutmeg or ginger, and cloves, into a large bowl. Make a well in the center of the dry ingredients and add the milk and eggs, stirring until partially combined. Add the honey mixture and stir until everything is well-combined.
  4. Divide the batter into the cups; each should be about two-thirds full. Bake until the cakes are barely set in the center and the tops are lightly browned 25-30 minutes. Let cool completely.
  5. Prepare the optional syrup while the cakes are cooking and cooling: bring the cider and 1/2 cup granulated sugar to a boil in a small saucepan or skillet, stirring until the sugar is dissolved. Remove from heat and let cool to room temperature.
  6. To finish: put the remaining 1/4 cup sugar in a small bowl. Remove the cakes from the muffin cups and roll each in the sugar, coating the sides. Dip the tops of each cake in the syrup after you roll each one, and set them on a serving plate.
  7. Alternatively, simply dip the tops in turbinado sugar.

To serve:  Chef Olivella suggests serving with remaining syrup and a bit of crème fraiche, but as a snacking cake they are good on their own.  Store in airtight container at room temperature 4-5 days.  Yield:  about 12 cakes.

Let Them Eat Bread!

There was a time when the dinner roll was ubiquitous fare with evening meals throughout America. In the early half of the 20th century, most popular was the Parker House roll, that fluffy darling known for its addictive sweetness.  The cloverleaf roll and other flavorless knock-offs followed, and by the 70’s and 80’s the dinner roll had morphed into throw-away status, a mere place-holder for the most ravenous.

Before we knew it, our evening bread threatened to drift into obscurity.  For those conforming to diets and health regimens, the dinner roll was typically viewed as not worth the carb outlay and restaurateurs were forced to take a serious look at the role bread played on the plate. They recognized the value of bread: it bought time and was an affordable meal extender.  On the other side, diners’ palates were becoming more sophisticated. “Either give us something worth eating, or forget about it,” they demanded.

Enter the army of artisan breads. Apparently, the French knew what they were doing with their beloved baguette. It wasn’t long before delightfully innovative loaves had fully captured our attention and claimed a well-deserved place at the table. We made the turn from soft and fluffy dinner rolls to artfully crafted bread—worth eating every crunchy, chewy, tangy bite.

Me?  I’m somewhere in the middle. I enjoy a slice of crusty bread dipped in flavored olive oil. Currently on my counter?  I’ve got my own light, yeasty rolls cooling on a rack; they’re enriched with sweet potato, accented by fresh sage.

sweet potato rolls

Shades of Parker House rolls!  These slightly sweet copper-tinged beauties serve a dual purpose:  they are both nutritious and delicious.  The sweet potato provides a good hit of valuable nutrients like vitamins A, C, manganese, calcium and iron, plus it brings a touch of sweetness and adds fiber for the dough’s structure.

This particular recipe is actually reworked from a gluten-free one by Erin McKenna in her excellent cookbook, Bread & Butter.  In my version, the dough is quickly mixed by hand to bring the dry and wet ingredients together. I use instant dry yeast which cuts down on rising time. Best news here, no kneading is required. The scooped dough is dropped onto a baking pan with limited space between the rolls. Within the hour they double in size, ready for the oven where they rise up and support each other to form light pull-apart rolls.

These rolls have real character; they are a match with a simple smear of butter and they can stand up to big flavors.  I’ve used them as sliders with sausage, kraut, and spicy mustard.

They are perfect for breakfast with eggs and such. They are just right with minestrone soup, and the dough makes fantastic pizza!

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You get the idea, they are dinner rolls worth eating.

Sweet Potato and Sage Rolls

Adapted from Erin McKenna’s Sweet Potato and Sage Pull-Apart Rolls from Bread & Butter

Ingredients
1 tablespoon cornmeal for the baking pan
½ tablespoon butter for baking pan
1-½ cups all-purpose flour
½ cup whole wheat, spelt, or teff flour
2 teaspoons instant dry yeast
¾ teaspoon baking powder
¾ teaspoon salt
1/2 cup sweet potato puree (from 1 small)
1 tablespoon butter
1 cup milk
2 tablespoons agave nectar
1 teaspoon dried sage or 1 tablespoon fresh, mince

Instructions

  1. Ahead: Prepare the sweet potato puree: bake 1 small for 6-8 minutes in microwave, turning once half way through. Let cool, scoop out the pulp, mash it well, and reserve ½ cup for puree. Butter the sides of 8×8” or 9×12” baking pan, line the bottom with parchment, sprinkle with cornmeal.
  2. In medium bowl whisk together flours, instant yeast, baking powder and salt.
  3. In a 2 cup measure or small bowl, combine the puree, 1 tablespoon butter, milk, agave, sage, and warm for 40-60 seconds in microwave to melt butter and bring it to 110-120°.
  4. Make a well in the dry and pour in the liquid; with a spatula stir to combine, until it is the consistency of a sticky dough.
  5. Using a 3-tablespoon ice cream scoop, measure portions into pan with no more than 1/2 inch between each roll on the pan. Cover the pan with a towel and let the rolls rise until light, 45-60 minutes.
  6. Preheat the oven to 400°F. Bake the rolls for about 16 minutes–half way through rotate the pan. Bake until golden and a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the rolls cool on rack for 10 minutes before unmolding. Yield: 9-12 rolls.