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Polenta Pizza – Topped with Kale

Spring is settling herself in right now, or at least she is trying. Perhaps its the ever controversial global warming giving our girl a rough run, but she seems to be experiencing some crisis of identity as she navigates the gap between the seasons. Like an awkward tweenager she makes her way in fits and starts. One minute she is demure and sun-beaming, makeup painted on with an expert hand – smiling pretty. Seconds later she has run her stockings, throws a fit, mascara streaking down her face as tears the size of nickels come rolling down. Flurries of laughter lightly mask deep seated angst but there is rumbling still beneath the surface. Sure, it looks pretty today, but don’t be fooled by the Polaroid image – it is only a moment in time. Storms are likely a-coming, and knowing our luck, they will arrive just in time for the weekend.

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With the winds a-changing we are busily reading ourselves for the onslaught of fresh fruits and veggies that comes with the start of the CSA season. I have been scouring the corners of the deep freezer for any remnants of last season’s produce and am doing my very best to clear out any stragglers hiding out in the “root cellar.” Making room for this year’s haul also entails a desperate attempt to make use of my stockpile of “freshly milled” grains from Anson Mills that have been biding their time in the deep freezer. With only a moment or two spent scanning the contents of the waist-high freezer you will find everything from Red Fife Wheat to Perfectly Milled Grits hanging out in organic looking brown satchels. Though I am embarassed to admit it, I have barely begun to make a dent in the wide array of milled products I ordered from Anson in early February.

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I am all about working with great ingredients, but there is something about working with this amazingly high caliber of goods that is simultaneously exciting and intimidating. For a bit of background on just why I have this amazing respect for what the folks over at Anson Mills have accomplished, the farmers and millers at Anson Mills have toiled for years to recreate heritage milled products grown by Small Farmers (themselves growing grain on about 150 acres) in South Carolina.

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In reviving centuries old growing and milling practices for grains, Anson Mills brings us back a piece of our food culture past. Many of the products in their repertoire, like their widely renown grits, likely also exist in what I hesitate to even call a weak likeness on a shelf in your local Walmart. But Anson Mills have taken these ingredients, food stuffs which, in other hands, have become ubiquitous, commonplace, and so often thoughtlessly processed and have elevated them to their former glory as cornerstones of New American cuisine.

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On their site, Anson Provides copious notes on the origins of each of their products paying tribute to the grain’s history and heritage with a detailed write up on its evolution as a foodstuff and some finer notes on what makes certain varietals of a grain uniquely disposed to a specific type of milling and/or culinary use. I found the write up on corn incredibly fascinating, in addition to delving into the division between flint and dent corn, the author works to provide some fine tuned background on what makes cornmeal, polenta, and corn flour unique; a question I, myself, had wondered for quite some time. And while all of this is immensely inspiring, the grains themselves feel almost too special to put to work.

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And so, dear readers, my satchels of perfectly milled flatbread flour, rye, farro, and grits have sat gathering the freezer equivalent of dust while I have fiddled about looking for the right recipes to showcase these meticulously ground gems. Armed with what I hoped would be a great recipe to show off the proud textures of Anson Mills’ polenta I set off to the freezer to pluck out a bag of their Polenta Integrale. At the same time I “unearthed” a bag of frozen kale that I knew was hiding about the bottom of the freezer and set about making dinner.

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This dish was inspired by a recipe from “Whole Grains for a New Generation” by Liana Krissoff, which has become an indespensible reference for grain cooking techniques and ideas (during a recent purge of old cookbooks for a yardsale, and subsequently, sale on Amazon, I knew this was one book that I simply cound not part with.) While Liana’s recipe is lovely I, as usual, was itching to play with the quantities of the ingredients called for, adding more kale, tossing in some frozen corn, reducing the amount of cheese etc… When making this recipe we tested two different techniques for baking the “crust.” Both methods were delicious though they turned out quite different looking end products. For the first crust we allowed the polenta to cool in the pan for only a short time (5-10 minutes) before releasing the springform. The polenta, which was not yet fully set, poured out into an organic pie shape. Though it could not be flipped to allow the underside to cook as well, we tossed on the toppings, popped it in the oven and pulled out a lovely freeform pie not long thereafter. With the second crust, we poured the crust and baked through the first baking and then allowed it to cool before popping it in the refrigerator overnight for use the next day. This crust was far easier to work with as it had fully set and the polenta was well jelled. Feel free to toy with the amount of time you rest the crust, the fact that it can be so easily poured and par-baked in advance makes it a great make ahead recipe for those with little time in the evenings to get dinner from chopping board to table.

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Polenta Pizza with Sweet Corn, Kale, and Cheddar

1 Large Bunch of Kale (about 450g), Washed Well (Don’t Bother to Dry), Stems Removed and Reserved for Another Use, Leaves Left Whole
OR 1 Bag Frozen Kale, Defrosted and Drained
4 Cups Water
1/2 TSP Kosher Salt
160g Polenta (All Grind Sizes are OK Though Cooking Times Will Vary)
1/2 Cup (about 56g) Cheddar Cheese, Grated*
2 Large Eggs, Lightly Beaten
1 Cup Corn Kernels (Frozen and Fresh Are Both OK – See Note Below**)

The Unexpeceted Cheddar from Trader Joes is mind-blowingly good, the flavor profile strikes a nice balance between sharp parmesean and tangy cheddar and it is on the harder side for a cheddar. If substituting another type of cheese, an aged cheddar would work well, as, I imagine, would an asiago or a mild parmesan*
*We used fresh kernels, if using frozen it may be a good idea to allow them to partially thaw and drain before use

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Preheat the oven to 425 degreese.

Prepare an 8-Inch spring form pan by lightly spraying it with cooking spray. Take a piece of parchment and place it over the insert of the springform pan. Close the rim around the paper leaving long pieces sticking out of the ends. Set the pan on a silpat (or parchment) lined baking tray (preferably with a rim.)

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Wash the greens REALLY well, I typically run this procedure in a salad spinner by filling the spinner with water and dunking the greens in and out of the water, if the water starts to look murky dump it and refill it. (You can “dump” the water in your garden or use it to water house plants!) Kale, especially the curly-leaf varieties has a way of clinging onto little pockets of dirt so as you go about washing the leaves, make sure to agitate the greens with your hands to loosen any dirt clumps that my be hiding in the curls. Drain the leaves but don’t dry them.

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Prepare a large ice bath and set it next to the stove (if possible.) Place the greens in a large pot over high heat. Cook, covered, with just the water clinging to leaves, tossing occasionally with rubberized tongs, until wilted, about 4 to 6 minutes. When the greens are just done cooking transition them immediately to your prepared ice bath to shock them – the shocking process will not only stop the cooking process but will brighten the greens color and prevent the greens from looking stodgy and muted.

Once the greens have thoroughly cooled in the ice bath dump them into a large colander. Grab a fist sized bunch and squeeze it between your palms to extract as much water as possible. Place the well drained balls of greens on a cutting board and chop them coarsely.

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In a medium saucepan, bring the 4 Cups of water to a boil over high heat. As soon as bubbles break the surface, add the salt and corn kernels. Once the water is boiling again, add the polenta in a stead stream, stirring constantly. Reduce the heat to low and allow the polenta to simmer, stirring frequently, until thickened.

Pour the polenta into the prepared baking pan and pop it into the oven to bake for about 25 minutes.

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While the polenta is baking whisk the eggs together in a medium sized mixing bowl. Add the greens, a few hearty cracks of pepper, and the cheese. Mix well and then cover with plastic and pop it in the fridge until it is needed.

Once the 25 minutes have elapsed, remove the polenta and place it on a metal rack to cool for at least 30 minutes.

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OK – now for the tricky part. Pop open the hinge on your springform pan. Depending on how well set the polenta is, it may ooze out a bit. This is A-OK, step back and let it do its thing, this is why we lined the spring form with a long piece of parchment. Take a second piece of parchment and place it on top of the polenta circle. On top of this place a cookie sheet clamp the sheet down tightly atop the baking tray. Now, carefully, and in one smooth motion, flip the entire unit over. Remove the baking tray, the bottom of the springform pan, and the parchment. Your polenta wheel should now be sitting pretty on a cookie sheet with what was formerly the bottom now facing up.

Place the cookie sheet in the oven for 15 mins to begin to cook the top. Remove the pan and scatter the kale topping over the base. Return the tart to the oven and bake for another 25 mins or so. I like the kale topping well crisped but take care that it doesn’t burn.

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