Garlicky Green Polenta

May 22nd, 2012 § 0 comments § permalink

The last (and also, only a bit shamefully, the first) time I was inspired to post a recipe in this space came not too long after the final shift of last year’s season at UBC farm. For the intervening 6 months since that time I have been in a deep, creative hibernation -in other words, working tirelessly to survive the first year of my master’s degree – at least as far as food was involved.

But now it’s spring. The first year of my program is over(!) and even though it’s still really wet, it’s a warm sort of wet, and it’s pleasant and things are growing out there and I couldn’t be happier! And once again, I’ve been inspired by my experiences on the UBC farm to share a new recipe with you all.

One of my volunteering gigs at the farm is as a farm friend with a program called Landed Learning. Every other Wednesday morning, and many other days that I don’t attend, green thumbs like myself get together with much older and wiser volunteers to mentor groups of school kids on the wonders of growing things that they can eat. Each group of 4-5 kids gets their own garden plot, and together we’ve spent the last 8 months (with a few months off in the middle of winter) planning and planting and composting and harvesting and cramming more about growing food into their 8 – 12 year old brains than I thought possible. It’s truly a fabulous program.

Anyone who knows me well has heard me go on and on and ooooon about how much I enjoy and look forward to getting my hands filthy with these kids. But my favoritest (yes, favoritest) thing about the program is this: each week, one of the groups cooks or bakes something for all their classmates to share during lunchg using ingredients from the garden.  This is a really important opportunity for some kids who might not otherwise get into the kitchen to try their hands at cooking. Maybe more importantly, making food to share with others in your community is a priceless experience for people of all ages.

There’s just one thing. . .  You see, these kids have been coming out since the beginning of March, and as you might imagine, there’s not typically a lot of food growing in a Canadian garden in March, even in Vancouver. But the children’s garden has kale. Lots and lots and lots of kale. I know that other greens can technically overwinter here, but for the last couple months it’s just been a unconquerable sea of red russian kale.

See all those yellow flowers in the above image from the farm? That’s kale. Well, the stuff near the ground off in the back might be dandelions, but I assure you that it’s mostly kale, gone to seed. And if you’re thinking to yourself that kale and pre-teens don’t go together, let me stop you right there. For the most part, those kids will try anything, and many of them truly love the kale that they grow in the garden. Some days it’s all I can do to keep them from eating the kale that they find in other group’s plots right down to the soil. “No, you can’t just take a couple ‘bug-sized’ nibbles. Leave that leaf alone!”

Even the most kale adoring omnivores will get sick of it when it’s the only thing that’s growing. The kids have been real troopers though, and with the help of the program organizers they’ve been making all number of creative kale foodstuffs each week, from a simple kale salad to kale sushi and open-faced kale blossom sandwiches. Thankfully, even though the planting season usually begins for most of Canada this may long weekend (or later . . . sorry about that frost Calgary :/), we’ve been planting in Vancouver for weeks now. The garden plots are already starting to fill up with lettuce and spinach and radishes that are just asking to be munched on. Along with the fact that the kale seems to have finally reached the end of its days, this means that the never-ending era of kale, as one child dubbed it, is almost certainly over.

That said, I am not even close to sick of kale. Far from it. And when I found myself with a large pot of polenta leftover from a cornbread experiment this afternoon, it was those inventive, tasty green dishes made by the kids that leapt to mind. So I reached for the kale in the fridge and whipped myself up a straightforward, light lunch of garlicky kale and goat cheese polenta. The greens give the polenta a refreshing edge, and I love the way that the cheese, stirred in a the end, only sort-of melts and creates a smooth and silky counterpoint to the polenta grains.

My take on the greens was loosely inspired by Heidi Swanson’s Garlicky Green’s Recipe. I also just love how that name sounds. This polenta recipe is more of a method than a science, and I can imagine substituting any number of greens (spinach, chard, collard) or cheeses (parmesan would be perfect) in this dish. Or, if you want to give it some weight and make it into more of a dinner, you could try beefing up the fried greens with some mushrooms and onions or whatever else you like. It’s a flexible combination, so I encourage you to be adventurous.

Garlicky Green Polenta
If you’re a frequent polenta eater, feel free to make this with leftovers from the day before. I find leftover polenta to be a bit thick and unwieldy – you can bring it back to life by reheating it on the stove and adding a bit of butter to smooth it out.

1 cup cornmeal or coarse polenta grains
3.5 cups water
2 tbsp butter (optional)
salt & pepper to taste

1 big bunch of kale (or spinach, chard or collards)
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
sea salt
4-5 cloves of garlic, minced.

2-4 tbsp goat cheese, crumbled

Bring the water to boil in a saucepan. In a thin stream, whisk in the cornmeal. Adding it too quickly usually results in lumps. Cook over medium-low heat, stirring occasionally, until thick. Generally this takes about 10 minutes, but I find that the cooking time can vary anywhere from 4 – 15 minutes depending on the coarseness of your grains.

Once thick, remove from heat and stir in the butter until smooth. (If like me, you prefer a chunkier polenta, feel free to leave out the butter). Add a bit of salt and pepper to taste.

While the polenta is cooking, wash the kale leaves thoroughly in a bowl of clean water and then rinse in a colander. De-stem the kale and tear or cut the big leaves into bite-sized pieces.

Heat the olive oil in a large skillet or wok. Add the greens, and then a pinch of salt. They will sputter when they hit the pan. Stir continuously until the leaves turn bright green and wilt – usually about 4 minutes, depending on the heat and the type of kale. When the kale is just about wilted, stir in the garlic. Saute briefly, and then remove the pan from the heat.

Stir the cooked kale and half of the crumbled goat cheese into the polenta. Serve into individual bowls and top with the remaining goat cheese.

Serves 4 as a side, or 2 as a light lunch.