Baked polenta with winter squash and salty cheese (Brooklyn, November 8, 2012)

The first week’s produce from our fall CSA is officially used up – I’m very pleased that we went through all of it. The peppers and eggs mostly went to make omelets. We ate the small turnips raw, cut up in a salad with raw kale massaged with avocado in a dressing of soy sauce, olive oil, lemon juice and salt. The rutabaga and sweet potatoes were used in a soup flavored with leeks, garlic olive oil, salt, red chile flakes and some very dry white wine that was pretty good but needs further experimentation.

I think the most memorable recipe this week was the squash. First of all, they were just nice to look at.

I wanted to do something different than I usually would, so I searched around for polenta and squash recipes. I found this one from [ Food and Wine ]. I halved the recipe. I  substituted my squash (a carnival squash – about 1 lb), left out the pine nuts and sage (too fussy) and substituted the Gouda style cheese for a Cheddar style (I used 1/4 pound of Cheddar and Parmesan). It turned out great – actually like a less mushy version of the squash casseroles I remember from my childhood. And it makes great leftovers.

Baked polenta with winter squash and salty cheese (adapted from http://www.foodandwine.com)

Ingredients

1 lb winter squash (butternut, acorn, carnival, etc.)

1/2 a large onion

2 cups polenta (dry)

A good deal of butter (3-4 tbs)

1/4 lb Parmesan-style cheese

1/4 lb aged Cheddar-style cheese

Salt and red chile flakes to taste

Directions

This is a bit fussy, but it’s best if you plan a few hours for this and take it step by step – otherwise you’ll be caught stirring the polenta and peeling the hot squash at the same time like I was, and that is no fun. It’s mostly low maintenance so put on a podcast and make an afternoon of it.

Step one: prepare and the squash and onions. Preheat oven to 375 F. Cut the squash in half, remove the seeds and stringy interior and then chop into fourths. Put these on a baking sheet and splash with olive oil, salt and red chile flakes. Bake until completely soft, at least 30 minutes if not more. When the squash is done, remove it and let cool.

While the squash is cooling, sweat and brown the onions in butter over medium heat until caramelized and fragrant. Take off the heat and set aside. When the squash is cooled, scoop out the flesh, discarding the skins, and set aside as well.

Step two: cook the polenta. First, butter a mid-sized pyrex or ceramic casserole and set aside. In a large saucepan, heat 6 cups of water. When almost boiling, add salt and taste (it should be flavorful). Then add the 2 cups polenta. For the next 15-20 minutes, watch the mixture and stir frequently so that the polenta doesn’t stick to the bottom and burn. When it starts to get thick, add 2 tbs or so of butter. Continue stirring until the mixture is relatively thick.

When thick but still not too hard to stir, add the onions and squash and stir until evenly mixed. Next, grate in the two cheese and stir until evenly mixed. When cheese, squash and onions are incorporated, take the mixture off the heat and poor it into the buttered casserole/pyrex. Let this set in the fridge for a couple of hours.

Step three: bake the dish: Bring the oven back to 375. Put the casserole into the oven and let cook for around half an hour until the top is browned. You can add extra cheese and butter to the top if you’d like before you put it in the oven.

To serve, slice into wedges. It is excellent with sauteed broccoli rabe, collards or any other bitter green with vinegar and chile.

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