When you cook at home every single morning, for most lunches, and for dinner nearly daily, you become a whiz–and a bit obsessive–at saving money, time, energy, and extra dishes, and at 7:30pm, after work and grocery shopping, you’d have a tough job convincing me to make a meal that uses more than one pan. Sometimes, dinner at home is so humble I don’t bother to mention the toast with eggs and greens, the humungous salads with smoked bluefish, the kitchen-sink pastas to you here.
But back when we first started BGSK, our inexperience led us to delicious cooking adventures we wouldn’t deign to go on now. In fact, the entire introduction of the book is about how by the end of our “sophomore year” in the real world, we’d stopped serving Manchurian Cauliflower–a crispy, sweet-and-sour cauliflower number–because we realized we’d rather be hanging out with friends than deep-frying batches of cruciferous vegetables behind the scenes. Accordingly, I became a scholar of simplicity, make-ahead appetizers, and baking polenta squares.
Though I loved this old recipe for polenta steaks, with its crispy edges from pan-frying, every time I’ve cooked polenta steaks in the last few years, I’ve brushed the steaks with oil and baked them. Not as messy. And not as good!
As I talked to quarter-lifers and put together the recipes for the Cooking Coaching students, I thought a lot about what dishes to put on the teaching menus. I aimed to convey the joy of everyday cooking over cooking show-style flashiness, yet I hesitated over whether that joy could be channeled with black beans and scrambled eggs, no matter how delightful.
Looking at the trajectory of this site, from Manchurian cauliflower to five-minute cabbage slaw, I realized that sometimes you need to pull off a showstopper in order to develop a love of cooking. You need to stand back in wonder and exclaim, “I made that!” long before you’re in the mood to mutter “here’s dinner” over an understated, if triumphant, couscous that you set on the table exactly 24 minutes after you walked in the door.
Still, I don’t want you to get the idea that this vegetarian stunner is hard to make. No, the gorgeous pepper topping needs just 15 minutes on the stove, and the polenta is truly easy to fry, even if you normally shy away from sputtering oil. Plated, the dish is beautiful–the jewel tones of the peppers hiding luscious melty cheese, and the polenta below, crispy on the outside and creamy and delicious within.
P.S. Manchurian cauliflower, if you dare.
Polenta Steaks with Multi-Colored Peppers, Red Onions & Smoked Mozzarella
You can use fresh mozzarella in this if you can’t find smoked.
For the polenta:
2 cups water
1 cup half and half
1/2 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
1/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan
1 tablespoon butter
Olive or canola oil for frying (around 1 cup)
For the topping:
1 tablespoon olive oil
4 mixed color peppers (except for green), trimmed and diced
½ large red onion, diced
1 clove garlic, minced
1 sprig fresh basil leaves, chopped, plus a few whole leaves for garnish
½ teaspoon sugar
1 teaspoon white wine vinegar or lemon juice
¾ teaspoon salt
¼ pound smoked mozzarella, torn into uneven bite-sized pieces.
Butter an 8-by-8 inch inch baking dish and line it with parchment paper. Butter that too.
In a medium stock pot, bring the water, half and half, and salt to a boil over medium-high heat. Slowly pour the polenta into the pot by sprinkling it in in a gentle stream, while stirring briskly. Turn the heat down to low and cook, stirring constantly, for ten minutes, or until almost all the liquid is absorbed. Add the cheese and butter and whisk to combine. Taste for seasoning, and add salt as necessary.
Evenly distribute the polenta in the prepared pan, smoothing the top. Cover with plastic wrap and refrigerate for 1 hour, then freeze for 30 minutes. You want the polenta to solidify fully so it doesn’t fall apart when you fry it.
Just before the polenta’s ready to take out, make the topping. In a skillet over medium-high heat, add the olive oil, the peppers, and the onions. Cook, stirring occasionally, for 6 minutes. Add the garlic and cook another 6 to 10 minutes, until the vegetables are soft but not melting. Add the salt, sugar, white wine vinegar, and basil, and stir to combine. Remove from the heat. Stir in the mozzarella so the pieces start to melt. Taste, adding more salt if necessary. Set aside.
Place a large skillet over high heat for 5 minutes. Fill it with about a ½-inch of oil. Remove the polenta from the freezer and cut it into 4 squares. Pat each “steak” dry with paper towels. Cook them in the oil 2 at a time, for 4 to 5 minutes per side, until brown and crispy. Remove the steaks to a paper towel to drain while you cook the remaining 2.
To serve, place one “steak” on each plate. Top with a quarter of the topping mixture and garnish with a few fresh basil leaves. Serve immediately.