Due to hubby’s request to eat more vegetarian meals this year, I saw no reason to not buy the latest book from Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall of the River Cottage fame, Veg Everyday. The book is dedicated to eating vegetarian meals, though it is not written by a vegetarian – an important distinction in my mind because it means there are no spooky and holistic ingredients which would otherwise make vegetarian cooking too much of an effort for a carnivore like me.
One recipe which instantly called out to me was the Chilli, Cheese and Rosemary Polenta with Tomato Sauce. There was something very nursery about this recipe. Plus I had some polenta in the pantry which had just passed its expiry date …
My first introduction to polenta was at the canteen at work. And before you recoil in shock, I should mention that Swiss canteens happen to be quite highly regarded in the culinary world. In fact, the canteens at several companies here even compete with one another in the same way that high-end restaurants do. One of my colleagues regularly uses the quality of the canteen meals as the bar for comparisons when he is dining out at restaurants. The canteen at our rival company has even published a cookbook – on fine dining. Pretty top notch.
If you are not familiar with polenta, think of it as the Italian equivalent for mashed potato, a creamy and filling dish made from yellow cornmeal and which is typically served as a side to accompany stews and braises, or served as a main in itself.
Unless you have the time and patience to stand by the stove for lengthy periods to stir over a steaming hot pot, quick-cook polenta is the way to go for an almost instant meal. When making fried polenta, you are essentially cooking the polenta first in a liquid and then leaving it to set in a dish before cutting it into pieces to fry in some oil.
And when it comes to frying, for this recipe, I tried frying long strips of polenta in an attempt to copy the accompanying photo in the book. However, I quickly discovered that the polenta started to soften once it hit the pan, thereby making it somewhat tricky to turn the polenta without breaking it. So short strips or wedges would be my recommendation.
The cheese adds a lot of flavour to the polenta and I used a mild Gruyère in place of Hugh’s suggested cheddar. In Zurich, only a few supermarkets sell cheddar cheese and usually only at the cheese counter alongside the other “special” cheeses. I would never have imagined that a block of cheddar could be sold next to delicacies like Pont-l’Évêque or Munster, but it seems the humble cheddar has an elevated status in this country. Well, only because it is the expats who buy cheddar and it makes more sense to sell it by weight over the counter than to stock it alongside the more popular local cheeses on the shelves. So whilst it is not impossible to find cheddar in Zurich, it’s good to know that Gruyère works quite well in this recipe.
A homemade tomato sauce pairs beautifully with fried polenta, but I found Hugh’s recipe somewhat bland and in need of a bit of tinkering; a spoonful of sugar and some salt and pepper did the trick.
Overall, I found it to be a lovely and simple dish for during the week. The frying takes a bit of time, but as a healthy alternative to this recipe, you could simply skip the frying and serve the wet polenta with the tomato sauce.
I have to confess that, fearing that this dish would not be substantial enough to qualify as a “meal”, I snuck in a few grilled lamb cutlets which I had sprinkled with a dry spice rub. My mum likes to send me catering-sized bottles of dried herbs and spices (long story), and while I am not always a fan of pre-made spice mixes, they happen to be quite handy when time is tight. The lamb cutlets were a welcome addition to this dish, but I recently made it again and served it as originally intended; it was just as wonderful as a vegetarian dish.
Chilli, Cheese & Rosemary Polenta with Tomato Sauce
Recipe adapted from Veg Everyday by Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall
For the polenta:
4 tablespoons olive oil
1 garlic clove, finely chopped
1 red chilli, finely chopped (or 1/2 teaspoon dried chilli flakes)
1 tablespoon fresh rosemary, finely chopped
150 g quick-cook polenta
100 g Gruyère or cheddar cheese, grated
For the tomato sauce:
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 garlic cloves, finely sliced
2 x 400 g tins of tomatoes, whole or diced (whole tomatoes will take a little longer to cook)
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon sugar, or to taste
To make the polenta, heat 2 tablespoons of the olive oil in a pan over low-medium heat. Add the garlic and chilli and cook for a few minutes until it is fragrant but not browned. Stir through the rosemary and remove the mixture to a small bowl.
Bring 800 ml of water to the boil in a medium saucepan. Slowly pour in the polenta, stirring as you do with a wooden spoon. Turn the heat down to low-medium and cook for a few minutes until the mixture has thickened. Stir in the garlic, chilli and rosemary mixture, together with the grated cheese. Taste for seasoning.
Lightly oil a large dish with deep sides, whether a glass dish or a baking dish. Pour in the polenta mixture and smooth it out evenly, about 2 cm thick. Leave the polenta to cool completely.
To make the tomato sauce, gently cook the garlic in the olive oil for a few minutes and then add the tinned tomatoes and bay leaf. Let the mixture simmer for about 20-30 minutes until the sauce has thickened somewhat. Add the sugar and taste for seasoning.
Once the polenta is cool and firm, cut it into slices or wedges. Heat some olive oil in a non-stick pan over medium-high heat and fry the pieces of polenta until each side is lightly golden.
Serve the polenta with the tomato sauce.
Serves 4 as a light meal.