Monday, January 26, 2015

Polenta with Thyme, Bacon and Poached Egg

If you check the weather report and there's a cold front headed in, this is the dish for you.  Cheap, filling, warm, comfort food.  Hunker down with a bowl of this creamy goodness and you will have a happy tummy.  

So. Polenta.  Don't be scared.  It's not hard.  It's also cheap and delicious, filling and warm. 

Let's do a quick run-down: what exactly is polenta?

The short answer:  coarse-ground cornmeal.  In Italy, polenta is the name of the dish made with the cornmeal.  In America, we've had a history with cornmeal making both cornmeal mush (doesn't that sound yummy) and also grits.  Ukrainian grocery stores also seem to have the grain widely available.

In America, you want the stuff that's actually labeled Polenta, or in a pinch, look for cornmeal labeled coarse ground.  If it's not marked, it'll be medium ground.    If it's ground too fine, you'll end up with floury gummy mush, as opposed to creamy delicious goodness.  So you really do want to find the right stuff to begin with. 

In Ukraine, it'll be in the grain section, coarse and yellow colored. 

You're looking for something that looks like this (parsley garnish optional):

(I didn't actually take this photo -- thank you Google Image Search)
 Here's the brand I finally found here (no luck at Walmart, I had to look at a different grocery store to get this here in America.  In Ukraine,  you can find the grain everywhere.)
When you first cook polenta, it's a creamy delicious thing -- maybe like the consistency of cream of wheat or grits.  But as it cools, it thickens and becomes very solid.  You can buy this more solid, pre-cooked stuff in the stores in tubes.  Usually people cut it in slices and warm it up with sauce or other goodies on top.  Also yummy, but we're going for the creamy kind today, so you're going to need to actually cook it.
I am not sure why, but polenta seems to have a reputation of being hard to cook.  It's not.  It does take a while, but if you know how to boil water and stir, you're qualified to cook this.

Without further ado, let's get this going before the blizzard hits (ok, so I'm in Texas right now -- no blizzards here, but there's one rolling into the Northeast and it's snowy in Ukraine, so it applies somewhere):

The Step-By-Step

Cook the grain

So first we're going to bring 5 cups of water to a boil with a clove or two of minced garlic and some salt thrown in. 

 Now we add the polenta.  Whisk it in until the water comes back to a boil. 

 Turn the heat to LOW.  IMPORTANT STEP!  Whisk every once in awhile as you walk by.  You're going to keep cooking this for about 50 minutes.

What you want is bubbling lava.  The slow bubbles forming and then eventually popping.  This is what you need for about 45 minutes.  Keep it uncovered, you don't need a lid.  Add a little water and stir in if it looks like it's getting too thick.  

Weirdly, when I cook this dish in Ukraine, 5 cups of water and 1 cup of grain seems to work perfectly.  When I cook it in America, I need more like 6 cups of water so it doesn't get too thick.  No idea why.  So add water as needed.

Prepare the other ingredients

Ok, so to make this into a real meal, we'll need some butter, thyme, parmesan (real is preferable to the kind in the green shaker), and one strip of bacon and one poached egg for each serving.

So as you are stirring the bubbling lava, you can be getting that bacon cooked and drained, and poaching your eggs.

If you don't know how to poach an egg, do a quick youtube search, there are plenty of videos out there.  Maybe I'll do a poached egg post, but that will be for another day.
After about 45 minutes of cooking, the polenta should be creamy and the grains should be soft, not gritty.  The photo above is actually a bit thicker than I like it -- so if yours looks like this, maybe stir in a bit more water.  

So, when it's all done cooking, stir in the butter. Dish this up immediately or it will start to thicken into a solid mass as it cools.

Add a poached egg and a crumbled strip of bacon to each serving.  Top with shredded parmesan and fresh thyme.

Curl up in a squishy corner of the couch and watch the snow come down.  Savor each creamy, hearty bite.

The Recipe 


1 cup uncooked polenta
5-6 cups water
1-2 cloves garlic, minced
1 1/2 teaspoons salt
2 Tablespoons butter
4 strips bacon
4 poached eggs
fresh thyme
fresh grated parmesan

Put salt, garlic and water in a saucepan and bring to a boil.  Add polenta, whisk in and return to a boil.  Then turn down the heat to LOW and whisk often, aiming for a "bubbling lava" effect.  Add water as necessary if the polenta appears to thick.

Simmer and whisk about 45-50 minutes.
While it's cooking, prepare the poached eggs and cook the bacon.
When polenta is done cooking, stir in the butter and dish up immediately (do not allow to cool -- it will thicken!)

Top each serving with a poached egg and a piece of bacon, crumbled.  Sprinkle with thyme and parmesan.

Serve immediately.

Thursday, December 18, 2014

Vintage Gingerbread Cookies

Do you have a "cool aunt"?  I have several aunts -- the one that travels the world to exotic places, the good listener, and I also have a "cool" aunt.   She talked to us kids like we were equals, and when I was an awkward pre-teen, she let me look through her fascinating book that told me about which make-up and clothing colors look good on you (I discovered from the book that I look best in "fall" colors). 

My cool aunt also is a great cook, and one year for Christmas gave me a stack of recipes written out on index cards to add to my collection.  One of these recipes is for "Old Fashioned Gingerbread Cookies". 

I pulled out the index card in my cool aunt's handwriting when looking for Christmas traditions to start with my own family.  My grandma had something like 23 different kinds of Christmas cookies she made every year to go on her famous cookie trays.  With three young kids -- I can realistically pull off two kinds.  So we do sugar cookies, and these gingerbread cookies, which I cut out with my mom's old jumbo cookie cutter.  The kids make a joyful mess decorating the sugar cookies, and these fun spiced guys are a classic.

So here you go -- an old-fashioned gingerbread cookie recipe for you.  Start your own holiday tradition (and invite your cool aunt over to have some too!).

The Step-by-Step

Make and Chill the Dough

First we need to cream the softened butter and sugar.  It should end up looking fluffy, like this.  

 Throw in the eggs and the molasses.   Beat that in to the butter mixture.

 It will look like this.

Now add the flour and the spices.  Mix it all up.

When you mix this together it'll be a sticky dough.    So we can't roll it out yet.  We can, however, sample the dough and lick the beaters.   And we need to chill the dough so that it's stiff enough to work with.

 Wrap in plastic wrap and refrigerate a couple of hours or overnight.

 Roll, Cut and Bake the Cookies

Divide the dough in two chunks.  Re-wrap and refrigerate one of the chunks.  Roll out the other half on a floured counter-top.  The thinner you roll them out, the crispier they'll be.  I myself prefer a softer cookie, so I try not to roll too thin.  It's hard to tell in the photo, but it's probably a bit thicker than pie crust.

You can also preheat your oven at this point.  325F (165C).

 Cut out the cookies with your favorite gingerbread man cookie cutter.  The one above is my favorite -- it makes large cookies (about 5" tall) and the limbs are long enough that they can be bent to make a variety of "poses" for your gingerbread people.

Lay your cookies out on parchment-lined cookie sheets and pose them, if you like.  Bake 10-12 minutes (don't overbake if you want your cookies soft!).  Let cool before decorating.  Repeat with the second lump of dough.

I like to use Royal Icing on these guys, because it hardens nicely, so the cookies don't smudge if they are stacked.  Pipe a few little decorations on the cookies with a pastry bag (or a ziploc with a teeny bit of corner snipped off).

The Recipe

2 cups sugar
1 cup butter or shortening
2 eggs
1/2 cup molasses
4 cups flour
1 teaspoon ginger
1 teaspoon ground cloves
1 teaspoon nutmeg
pinch salt
2 teaspoons cinnamon
1 teaspoon baking soda

Cream the butter and the sugar.
Add in the eggs and molasses.  Beat into the mixture.
Add the rest of the ingredients and mix together.
Wrap the dough in plastic wrap and refrigerate several hours or overnight.
When ready to bake, preheat oven 325F (165C)
Divide dough into two chunks.  Roll out one while keeping the other wrapped and refrigerated.
Cut the cookies with your cookie cutter and place on parchment lined cookie sheet.
Bake 10-12 minutes.  
Repeat with the second lump of dough. 
Cool, decorate with icing of choice (Royal Icing recommended), enjoy.  
Leave a few for Santa.

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Dutch Babies

Here in a Ukrainian village, living far away from the nearest real grocery store, I have learned to meal plan.  I normally take inventory of the freezer and then plan dinners for a week.  

The flaw in the plan is when I fail to take the meat out of the freezer in time.  Or when I get caught up in some ministry issue and my perfectly planned dinner just ain't gonna happen.

Most of my American friends would run to the grocery store for a frozen pizza or get Thai take out  or just take the family to Olive Garden.  I do not have any of those options.  If I have bacon, I'll usually go the pasta carbonara route.  But if I don't....  I make breakfast for dinner.  (Whoever invented breakfast for dinner -- you are a genius!).  Usually the go-to is waffles.  But sometimes I like to do something different and we have Dutch Babies.

This is also a great recipe for a fun dessert (especially when you have nothing in your pantry but the basics) or a breakfast worthy of company.

My husband asked me to explain that we do not actually consume infants from Holland for breakfast or dinner.  I am not sure why they're called Dutch babies.  Some people call them German pancakes. It's sort of a cross between an enormous pancake and a souffle.  Whatever European lineage you would like to attach to this dish, it's delicious, impressive and simple.  Did I mention 4 ingredients and on the table in under 30 minutes?  

Right, so let's do it....

The Step-by-Step

First, let's double-check if you can do this.... do you have a blender? Check.  Do you have an oven-proof frying pan (hint: will the handle melt in the oven or not?)  Check.  Ok, we are double-checked and ready to go.

So turn on your oven to a toasty 425F (220C) and put 4 tablespoons of butter in the pan.  Stick the pan in the oven.

Now get out your blender, and have the rest of the ingredients pre-measured and ready to go.

Now crack the eggs into the blender.  If your 3-year-old has a thing for cracking eggs, then take the extra 7 minutes to let him pull up the step ladder and crack the eggs.  If not, that's ok too.

Whirl the eggs for three minutes.  After 3 minutes, start adding about half of the flour, and then about half of the milk and then the rest of the flour and then the rest of the milk.  Blend a bit more until it's smooth.  

Soothe the 3-year-old who is running away with his ears covered because the blender is "too loud".

Take the pan out of the oven WITH A POTHOLDER.  (For some reason, using a stovetop frying pan in the oven makes me very likely to grab the SCREAMING HOT pan handle with just my bare skin.  Ouch.)

Pour the batter into the melted butter into the pan.  Pop that baby (Dutch or otherwise) back into the oven for about 20 minutes.

When it's done, it will be all puffy and golden like this.  Gorgeous.  Call everyone to the table.  Dutch babies are so much better straight from the oven, fluffy and hot.  

Today I had some blueberry sauce on hand, so that's how we topped our dutch babies.  But my favorite is a squeeze of lemon juice plus a sprinkle of powdered sugar.  You could also use fresh fruit, jam, honey or syrup on top.  The possibilities are many.  Whatever you like.

Cut in quarters and dish up to the waiting hungry monsters. 

The Recipe


4 Tablespoons butter
3 eggs
3/4 cup milk
3/4 cup flour
(Additional toppings as desired)

Preheat oven 425F (220C).

Put butter in an ovenproof skillet and let the pan with butter heat up in the oven.

Measure the milk and flour.  In a blender, whirl the 3 eggs for 3 minutes.  Add half of the milk, then half of the flour, then the rest of the milk and the rest of the flour.  Blend just til smooth.

Pour batter into the hot pan (careful! use potholder!).

Bake in the oven 20 minutes.

Remove from oven and serve immediately.

Top with fresh fruit, lemon juice + powdered sugar, honey, jam or syrup.