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Pretty Good Polenta

One of the things I’ve gotten back into during my recent long absence is cooking. To my own mind I feel extremely rusty in the kitchen,fumbling around,burning roux (or worse,melting plastic spoons into it while stirring),generally being the opposite of who I used to be when I wore the whites.

It doesn’t help that I have high expectations for myself or that my sense of taste hasn’t atrophied in conjunction with my cooking skills. Nor does reading Kitchen Confidential to Jo make me enthusiastic about my moves,which would require a Rocky III level of training to recapture.

While I’m not particularly happy with my results to this point,I’ve come across some good recipes that have been fun to cook. There have been a few that I’ve been so impressed with that I’m willing to pass them on,and I decided that posting them here is the easiest way to do so.

I pull recipes and inspirations from a variety of sources,and the one I’m featuring today,Creamed Chicken with Corn and Bacon over Polenta,comes from the September 2000 issue of Gourmet magazine.

The recipe itself is pretty easy and doesn’t call for any ingredient more exotic or hard to find than polenta,which you can pick up just about anywhere. Jo and I aren’t millionaires,and we can’t afford to constantly eat food filled with fancy ingredients,which means that what I do cook is more straightforward and “honest,”as Anthony Bourdain says. We’re talking food for working people here,haute cuisine. Even if I am a whiz with the tin opener…

First,mise en place.

The equipment you’ll need:

1 large saute pan (or cast-iron skillet,if you can manage it)
1 small saute pan
2 medium sauce pans
tongs
whisk
spatula (non-melting type)
sieve
small bowl

medium plate
liquid measurement cups
dry measurement cups
table and tea spoons
paper towels

And now,the ingredients. I’ve made a few suggestions (in italics) and have annotated salt and pepper measurements with asterisks because I firmly believe each cook should season the food to their taste,not to any arbitrary measurement.

For the creamed chicken:

6 bacon slices
1 lb skinless,boneless chicken breast
2 cups corn (~3 ears,if you’re going the fresh route)
1 cup milk
2 Tablespoons unsalted (sweet) butter
2 Tablespoons flour (you’re probably going to need more)
1 1/4 cups heavy cream
1 teaspoon ground black pepper*
1/2 teaspoon black white pepper*
1 teaspoon kosher salt*
3 large plum tomatoes,seeded and finely diced
1 large red bell pepper,seeded and finely diced
1 large orange bell pepper,seeded and finely diced

canola oil,enough to coat the bottom of your skillet

For the polenta:

6 cups water (I’d go with half water,half chicken stock for extra flavor)
2 1/2 teaspoons kosher salt*
1 1/2 cups polenta
1/2 lb Fontina cheese,diced (doesn’t need to be Fontina –pick something you like)

1/4 cup fresh basil

Starting with the bacon,cook it in the small amount of canola oil in the skillet,over medium heat,until it reaches the level of doneness you prefer in your bacon. The amount you cook it won’t have an effect on any later process –the bacon is going to be a garnish.

Once the bacon has finished cooking,transfer it to some paper towels for cooling and degreasing purposes. Retain about 1 1/2 tablespoons of the bacon fat/canola oil in the skillet. After the bacon cools,dice it into 1/2 inch pieces.

While the bacon is cooking,pat the chicken dry and season it liberally with salt and pepper. The idea is to get a nice coating of seasoning on the chicken so it cooks in when you toss it in the skillet with the still-hot bacon fat/canola oil. Be careful when you do this,as you’re going to get some splattering.

Cook the chicken over moderately high heat for around 8-10 minutes,or until it’s just cooked through and still nice and juicy. Take it out of the skillet and place it on a plate to cool. Later you’re going to want to tear it into bite-sized pieces.

The corn and the cream sauce come next. You’re going to pour the milk into one of the sauce pans,toss in the corn and diced peppers,and cook both about 5 minutes,or until the corn is crisply tender. Carefully pour the milk through the sieve into a bowl and retain both corn and milk separately.

Using the same sauce pan (you might want to wipe it out quickly in case some of the milk is still adhering to the pan),melt the butter over moderately low heat. If your heat is too high,your flour will cook too fast and your roux will become too powerful. Add the flour to the melted butter and stir!,allowing the roux to cook about two minutes. This is going to be key –if your roux is too strong,it’s going to turn your sauce into a thick gravy (like mine sort of turned out to be).

Gradually whisk in the cream,then the milk from earlier,along with additional salt and pepper to taste. Bring the lot up to a boil,then turn it down to a simmer for three minutes,whisking all the while. Stir in the peppers,corn,and chicken. Cover and keep warm over low heat. Stir occasionally if needed.

Finally,the polenta. While the other things are starting to cook,bring the stock/water/salt (watch your salt if your chicken stock is salty to begin with) combination to a boil. Stir in the polenta and cook over moderately high heat. Keep stirring the polenta as it cooks,or it’s going to stick to the bottom and taste horrible (something along the lines of burnt cornbread). It should take about 5 minutes to cook. After the polenta is thick and pulling away from the sides of the pan,turn off the heat and stir in bits of the cheese,a few chunks at a time so you avoid an enormous cheese curd in the middle.

Divide the polenta into bowls (the recipe says it serves six,but I’d guess it’s more of a real world four,especially if you’ve got hungry folks on hand). Stir the basil into the chicken/corn/peppers mixture and spoon that over the polenta. Garnish with the bacon you cooked and diced earlier.

I didn’t think this a bad recipe,and without serious gaffes it should take only about 40 minutes from start to finish. With all the polenta and corn it can be a bit bland,so if you’re feeling like experimenting,cooking the chicken with some white wine would fit in nicely and add some flavor,as would other spices of a Southwestern persuasion that you enjoy. I didn’t have the peppers on hand –I came up with that idea after eating half the meal. If you drink beer,I’d suggest a brown ale with this meal –I happened to have some Goose Island Christmas Ale that went down well.
If this post piques enough interest,I’ll make a cooking supplement a semi-regular feature here. I cook every night and have already run across three or four recipes of relative ease that I can share for those interested.

1 comment to Pretty Good Polenta

  • brianS

    Looks tasty.

    Polenta (or “mush”,as my dad prefers to call it) is ridiculously easy to make. I wonder why it had (almost) died out in the States. My grandma made it frequently in the 1930s and 1940s when my dad was growing up (usually as “fried mush”). I _never_ had it as a kid,but have since made it a few times per year. particularly when the old man comes to visit,although he has to put up with my pretensions when that happens —blue cheese,mushrooms,whatever.

    come back,Wyl. If you post regularly on food and drink,I at least will comment regularly.

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