Today: Polenta that makes the most of August.
If you're ever getting bored with what you think vegetables can do, turn to Plenty.
It's finally that point in summer where we're rifling around for inspiration; the tomato rounds laid out with salt and pepper, the simplest barely-cooked corn on the cob -- oh, they're still good, but how many times have we had them now?
Plenty is the answer. Much like the vibrant food served at Yotam Ottolenghi's bar-raising takeaway restaurants in London, but drawn from his lively (mostly) vegetarian columns in The Guardian, these are idea-driven restaurant recipes written for home cooks.
Of course you already know all this. Plenty nearly won the 2011 Piglet Tournament of Cookbooks, surviving serious decisions by Gabrielle Hamilton, Peter Kaminsky, and Christine Muhlke. It's also one of the newest volumes to have made it into your top 10 cookbooks, placed alongside reference library tomes like Joy of Cooking and Mastering the Art of French Cooking.
The Ottolenghi mission is this: "Our favourite ingredients are of this 'noisy' type: lemon, pomegranate, garlic, chilli." Noise, unceremoniously delivered, could overwhelm all that's good in a vegetable. But applied with a steady hand, noise can make them dance and sing. (We have arielleclementine -- a cook with just-noisy-enough recipes herself -- to thank for pointing us to this recipe.)
Here, the noise comes in the form of feta, oregano, white wine, and tomato paste, nestled in among sweet corn, fresh tomato, and eggplant -- everything that's in season right this second -- to set them alight.
The conceit is similar to a wintry ragu over traditional creamy polenta, but this being summer, it's instead full of young, spry ingredients, so you don't have to wait (or warm the kitchen) nearly as long.
In its entirety, this is a recipe that works and is really, really good. (In the name of the Piglet, Peter Kaminsky served it to three sets of guests, always to raves.) But it's also full of ideas you can parcel out as you see fit.
First: Polenta doesn't have to be born out of dry goods. Fresh corn, cooked quickly, breaks down to a sweet soup in the food processor. (According to tipster jbban, the process in reverse is just as genius, and becomes corn butter -- see Whitney Chen's recent post on Gilt Taste).
Second: A natural mate for corn's Sandra Dee sweetness? Salty, briny feta -- the Danny Zuko of cheeses.
Third: Seriously, this eggplant sauce is good on anything.
Fourth: Unlike tomatoes or corn, eggplant is picky. If you mess it up, you get surly mouthfuls that are spongy and chewy. Here, you fry it quickly in more oil than you think you should, then drain most of the oil away. The eggplant melts. If you're a Tamar Adler disciple, you'll save the oil to fry your eggs or lamb chops in tomorrow.
Make this tonight. Then go back to basics tomorrow. Repeat, till summer is done.
Adapted very slightly from Plenty (Chronicle Books, 2011)
2/3 cup vegetable oil
1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice
2 teaspoons tomato paste
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup chopped peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)
6 1/2 tablespoons water
1/4 teaspoon salt
1/4 teaspoon sugar
1 tablespoon chopped fresh oregano
6 ears of corn
2 1/4 cups water
3 tablespoons butter, diced
7 ounces feta, crumbled
1/4 tsp salt
See the full recipe (and save and print it here).
Got a genius recipe to share -- from a classic cookbook, an online source, or anywhere, really? Please send it my way (and tell me what's so smart about it) at [email protected].
Photos by James Ransom