Which came first – the chicken or the eggplant? – Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant
I recently went through a stage of Sweet Corn obsession. You see I found this little, ok, not so little, really, actually, quite big, Amish Stand in Green Hills, next to the Green Hills Y, that had (probably still has but I am trying to avoid making eye contact with this food candy for at least the next few weeks – ok days) the most amazing corn ever (to my former English teachers, yes, that is a run on sentence, and yes there are probably more commas than needed and all in the wrong places, you tried, I know, but I probably wasn’t listening.) This corn made me giddy, it was probably all of the sugary carbohydrates talking, but I wanted to do a little dance when I ate it (which I am wont to do – both the eating and the jig dancing that is.)
I am not entirely sure what the Amish Farmers that raise this corn feed their soil, but I am pretty sure it should be examined and exploited to make more delicious corn for the rest of the world. Now most of you probably do not get this excited about corn, I mean, its just CORN, Right? the crop has been around for-ever, we use it to do all sorts of things, and I agree, it has, and we do. And I realize that I am raving on and on about a crop that has gotten a good smattering of bad press in the last few years. Some of that negative image is, indeed, warranted. But, I think there is good reason that man has persisted in cultivating corn for the last 4500 years or so.
Corn is the most widely grown crop in the Americas. In the United States, 40% of the corn produced goes into our gas tanks, a frightening thought, and a topic for an entirely different debate, the other 60% is divvied up between feed for livestock, and food stuffs for the general population. Corn’s popularity in the states is nothing new, Native American populations fostered a unique growing methodology for corn growing it on the side of steep hills. The corn was planted in tandem with bean crops, the corn provided structure and support on the steep hills for the beans, which in turn provided the much needed nitrogen in the soil to fuel the corn’s growth. This method is still used today around the world where farmers typically employ a crop rotation methodology planting first a nitrogen-fixing crop like alfa alfa or soy beans, and the planting the corn in the enriched soil.
With these advancements and subsequently, the relative ease of growing corn in the Americas, we have found ourselves in a situation in which corn can be found far and wide, in or cars, in soda cans, in pretzels, breads, in feed for cattle, and as pale and meager looking ears stacked on Styrofoam and wrapped in plastic. Spread around like this, it is easy to see how corn has gotten itself a bad reputation (what a food industry floozie!) But this recipe, by the ever genius Yotam Otolenghi, takes advantage of (well raised, peak season) corn’s sweetness, its supple texture and starchy consistency, and exploits these traits to create a homey and comforting fresh corn polenta that will make even the best mashed potatoes or restaurant cooked polenta look pale and homely by comparisson.
This dish to me is the epitome of August cooking, it employs foods that are the glut of the late summer harvest and turns them into a truly comforting and elegant meal of restaurant quality. I made some significant changes to Ottolenghi’s methodology in devising this dish, First, though I am typically not a huge fan of microwave cooking, I had heard that microwaving cubed eggplant sandwiched between layers of paper towels and plates would prevent it from absorbing nearly its body weight in oil during the initial sauteing process. I placed the cubes on a single layer on a large paper towel lined dinner plate and microwaved them for three minutes to steam them. Once all of the cubes had been cooked in batches I sauteed them in a non-stick skillet with minimal oil. An addition of tomato paste during the sautee helped create a brilliant crust on the eggplant as the paste created a caramel-y sear.
Trying to be true to our “healthy cooking” identity, I significantly reduced the amount of butter and cheese in the polenta itself. To me, and to Dustin – who happily gobbled it up by the bowlful, the fat was not missed, in fact, I suspect that the nearly double dose of Feta would overpower some of the sweetness that I loved so much about the corn mash. I blended the corn in my food processor, which, with its long flat blade and smooth spinning motion, were perfect for the job. If you don’t have a processor, a food mill or stick blender will work well. Just let the mixture cool slightly before processing with these tools (especially the stick blender) to keep the mixture from hopping out of the pan (or mill) and singeing your skin. I would caution against a high power blender, like a vitamix, for this endeavor. The high velocity vortex that these contraptions create may make the corn simultaneously too aerated, and even gummy.
Sweet Corn Polenta with Eggplant (Adapted from Yotam Ottolenghi’s Plenty)
1 Medium Eggplant Cut Into 1/2-Inch Dice
1-2 TBSP Olive Oil
2 TBSP Tomato Paste**
1/4 C. White Wine (Dry – I Used a Cheap Dry Chardonnay)
1 C. Chopped Fresh Tomatoes*** (You Can Use Canned If Fresh Aren’t Available)
1/2 C. Water
1/4 TSP Salt
1/4 TSP Sugar
1 TBSP Chopped Fresh Oregano
6 Ears Sweet Summer Corn
2 1/4 C. Water
2 TBSP Butter
3 Oz. Crumbled Feta (I Used a Strong Brined Feta)
1/4 C. Sour Cream
1/4 TSP Salt
Freshly Cracked Pepper to Taste
Notes: **Trader Joes sells tomato paste in lovely little tubes, like the ones that you buy anchovy paste in, that you can keep in the fridge to use as needed, no more opening cans each time you need paste for a recipe and wondering what to do with the leftovers.
*** The original recipe called for skinning the tomatoes, my tomatoes were nice thin skinned heirlooms (Brandywines, I believe) I didn’t bother with the peeling and the sauce was delicious. If you have something against tomato skins or are just particularly sensitive to their presence, cut an x in the bottom of the tomato and drop it into coiling water, as soon as the skins start to loosen at the bottom, drop it into a prepared ice bath. Proceed to peel and chop as normal (careful, peeled tomatoes are particularly wily and try to flop off of the cutting board and flee.)
To start off, place the eggplants on a paper towel lined (microwave safe) plate in a single layer. Place another sheet of towels on top of the eggplant cubes and a plate on top of that and microwave for 3 minutes. Repeat in batches until all of the eggplant has been steamed in this fashion.
Heat oil in a large nonstick saute pan (I used a 12 inch scanpan with nonstick coating) add eggplant and sear, stirring often for 4-5 minutes. Add the tomato paste and continue to cook until the tomato paste starts to form a crust on the eggplant. Stir often to prevent sticking. Add the wine and allow it to cook off before adding the remaining ingredients. Sautee for another 4-5 minutes and then remove from the heat and set aside until needed.
Place the corn in a large pot and fill with water until covered by about 1 inch. Add a pinch or two of salt and bring to a boil. Reduce to a simmer and cook for about 4 minutes. Drain the corn in a colander set inside of a large bowl. Place the drained corn in a food processor along with about a cup of the reserved cooking liquid and puree. The mixture should still look a bit coarse and gritty but with no visible whole kernels remaining. Return it to the pot along with another cup or so of cooking liquid, it should look like a potato soup consistency, we want to reduce this now, over medium low heat, until it looks more like mashed potatoes.
Once you reach a consistency you like, remove it from the heat and add the feta, butter, and sour cream. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper as needed.
Serve topped with a mound of the eggplant in the center (see photos above) and enjoy!