With five weeks left before our departure, I have become just a wee bit obsessed with using up things. Why? Because I don’t want to pack them away for three months and have to deal with them upon my return. Travel-size bottles of lotions swiped from hotels sit upside down on my bathroom shelf. The goal: have none of them left before I go. As I brush my teeth each morning and evening, I silently curse the friend who left a full size tube of toothpaste at my house. I pride myself on being able to live off a travel size one for months at a time. (As I said earlier, just a wee bit obsessed. And perhaps a wee bit crazy.)
But it’s figuring out how to use up the food that brings me the most challenge–and the most fun.
I feel like I’m in my own episode of Chopped–the TV show where three people open up mystery baskets to reveal a seemingly unrelated group of food items they must use to prepare an appetizer, entree, or dessert. One of the best parts of the show is the look contestants give when they see some of the ingredients.
That same look crossed my face when I was handed corn grits as part of my winter CSA share. Having not grown up in the South, I had not the slightest idea what to do with them. I had tried grits a few times in my travels, and found only when combined with goat cheese did I like them. (And that’s not saying much. You can combine anything with goat cheese and I’ll like it.) So this past weekend’s mission was to find something to do with them. With no goat cheese on hand, I thought, How about polenta?
The only time I’ve ever seen polenta made, let alone eaten it, was at a retreat center in Rhode Island where I served as sous-chef under an Italian woman. I remember being quite impressed at how good polenta was, but apparently not impressed enough to try it since then.
I wasn’t even sure corn grits were what one used to make polenta. After entirely too much time on the internet, I learned there is great debate on the merits of using corn grits versus corn meal. Not much debate for me though: all I had were the grits, so I decided to give it a shot.
Making polenta is a bit like making risotto: once you pour the grits into the water, you have to keep stirring. And stirring. For a half-hour my recipe said. “Until you can swipe a spatula through it, and the polenta doesn’t fill back in.” Which actually took fifty minutes.
I pulled the pile of mush off the burner, my arms exhausted. It didn’t look very appetizing, but I wasn’t going to eat it like that anyway. The Italian woman had baked it and then doled out slices of it. So I poured my grainy cake-batter-like substance into a loaf pan, covered it with some Parmesan, and tossed it in the oven.
The recipe warned that it was best to eat it right after it came out of the oven, and not to even think about eating it the next day unless you were going to fry it up in some oil, in which case they said it made one of the best breakfasts you’ll ever have.
So after it finished baking, I cut myself a slice. I wasn’t impressed. I should have known better. If that Italian woman was anything like my own Italian grandmother, she threw in some other things when I wasn’t looking. Darn. I hoped frying a slice in oil the next morning would improve things.
But it didn’t.
So what did I do? What all Italians do with food they don’t necessarily want to eat as is, but don’t want to waste: I dipped a slice in egg, then breadcrumbs, and then fried it up.
Ah, now I was getting somewhere. But I forgot to flavor the breadcrumbs, so there was room for improvement. (Yes, I know one can purchase already-flavored breadcrumbs. And I do. But Grandma Gallo taught me they’re never flavored enough, so we add to it.)
The next day, I cut another slice off the loaf. I added basil, parsley, fresh ground pepper, and a little garlic to the breadcrumbs, and voila. Divinity. A wee bit of polenta covered in fried deliciousness. And Rebecca remains the Chopped champion of her own kitchen.