I had the pleasure of meeting a very talented Seattle chef and blogger, Michael Natkin, as he toured the United States promoting his new vegetarian cookbook Herbivoracious by Harvard Common Press.
The event was geared towards local bloggers and it felt like a mini reunion with over half the people in the room I would call dear friends.
Over glasses of lovely Barbera we chatted informally with Chef Michael before he started his cooking demonstration.
Chef Michael’s book really appealed to me because despite of my great love of fruits and vegetables I feel that my execution of vegetarian cuisine is still in its infancy. I prepare a great variety of vegetable side dishes but the majority of my cooking is very meat-centric and I feel that my menu easily slips into a rut.
I have a few friends who are vegetarian and have very elevated palates. When we have get-togethers I always stress over what to make for them as my first thoughts generally run to bacon.
Chef Michael’s fresh and innovative dishes put together ingredients in a manner that made me think “Oooh, that’s terrific, now why didn’t I think of that?!!”
We were treated to three stunning dishes that night, and I have included the recipe of my favorite dish of the night for you to try: the stuffed and baked polenta.
I made it a few weeks ago before I was allowed to stand and I must admit cooking while healing from surgery was quite the Herculean task. I needed to rest after each step but I did it. I wasn’t able to do the final bake but a dear pal took care of that for me. My friends who devoured it with me were very appreciative and the kids loved it too.
I made it again yesterday for friends who were dining with me at home and it turned out so good, I think I may have to make this part of my regular rotation.
I made my mother’s bechamel, which is simmered slowly with an onion studded with cloves, bay leaf, nutmeg, and knifepoint of cayenne pepper. The minced fresh tarragon was stirred in right before using.
For the mushroom and greens filling, I had bunches of dino kale, beet greens, and rainbow chard. The nice thing about this recipe is that you can use all of the greens, including the stems, if they are chopped rather finely. You can also use up any greens that you might have in your refrigerator, including lettuces that might be too limp to use in a salad.
The assembly of the dish is a lot of fun. You spread the cooked polenta into a greased dish and then top it with the greens and the bechamel. I had to use my largest stockpot to make the 9 cups of polenta the recipe called for, and since I cannot stand at the stove for very long, I sat on the seat of my scooter and stirred. It worked out rather well and was less tiring.
I also added a good handful of grated Parmesan, and the larger pieces of the soft fontina that I could not grate because the cheese is just too squishy. I let these cheeses melt into the polenta before I spread it into the pan.
The mushroom and greens mixture is spread on top. A good tip is to let it cook down until it is fairly dry to prevent any vegetable juices from softening the lower layer of the polenta after baking.
The bechamel is spread over the top of the greens. It is very important to be sure you spread the sauce into each corner.
The remaining batch of polenta is spread onto the top of the filling and smoothed over and topped with cheese.
When viewed from the side through the Pyrex casserole dish you can really see the beautiful layers of the creamy polenta, the savory greens and mushrooms, the creamy bechamel, the rich top layer of polenta and mixed cheeses on the top. It is slid into the oven to be baked until bubbling and golden brown and a little crispy on the edges.
While this was baking it smelled so divine. We could barely stand it until the timer went off but we held on for a bit longer to let it cool for about 10 minutes until it firmed up a bit so that it could be sliced into perfect straight edge slabs to be slid onto our ready plates. The next day all the leftovers were reheated briefly in the microwave and devoured for lunch. We looked at the empty dish and felt quite sad. It was gone!
I am really looking forward to making this again. I think that I may add a fine lardon of bacon to the vegetable mix for extra porky sinfulness.