I recently discovered a number of shops nearby which sell beans, grains, and so on in bulk from large sacks. Apart from the quaintness of it all, you can get some really cheap staples as well as some cool, harder-to-find items. I had been harboring a latent polenta hankering for a while, and when I walked into the first of these shops (which also happened to have the smallest selection, it turns out) I was struck by the variety of different sizes available for each grain. Not only is the polenta at the grocery store expensive, it’s downright powdery. I prefer a coarser grind, both for flavor and texture. So I was delighted to find a range of different cornmeal grinds. I bought two bags, one very coarse, one medium.
The dish I had in mind was an Italian-style braised chicken with spring vegetables, namely fennel. I got some cheap chicken leg quarters from a butcher and brought them home to cook.
The first step in any good braise is to get the meat nice and brown to build up the fond. Once my chicken legs were deeply bronzed on both sides, I moved them to a plate to cool so I could remove the skin. (Chicken skin makes for some tasty fond, but you don’t want all that extra grease in your final dish.) I added sliced onion and fennel to the still hot pan and used the moisture released to scrape up the browned bits.
I also added salt, pepper, fresh thyme, and dried oregano to the pot. While the vegetables softened, I went about the slippery task of removing the skin from the chicken leg quarters. Once they had been denuded I returned them to the pot, along with a can of diced tomatoes, some red wine, and water to just about cover everything.
There were probably a couple cloves of garlic and a bay leaf thrown in somewhere along the way. I partially covered the pot and turned the heat to low to let it simmer while I cleaned up the mess I had made so far and got the polenta going. The beauty of braising chicken is that it takes about half as long as pork or beef, so you can have a really flavorful stew in about an hour and a half.
For the polenta I followed the recipe I’ve been using since culinary school. Cream, stock, salt, white pepper, polenta. I chose the medium polenta because I was hungry and figured it would cook faster.
While the polenta was simmering, I removed the chicken from the pot and pulled the meat off the bones. This didn’t take much effort, as the chicken was nice and tender by this point. I also reduced a little balsamic vinegar on the stove and stirred that into the stew with the chicken pieces.
This is really just a variation on a recipe I often make in the winter, with Swiss chard added at the end and no fennel. It came out every bit as good as I had hoped, and was the perfect meal for a rainy evening.
But I still had plenty of polenta…
The next morning, I still hadn’t had my fill of the comforting flavor of corn. I decided to try my hand at some polentapancakes. But what to serve with them? A glance at the fruit bowl revealed some juicy William pears (better known to Americans as Bartlett). What if I sautéed them in a little butter and sugar and then glazed them in maple syrup? Yeah, that sounds pretty good. I grabbed a couple of pears and began peeling.
I cut each pear into eighths and removed the core. Then I placed them ina pan over medium heat to slowly caramelize. Once they began to get some color, I threw in another pat of butter and let them continue to soften. When they were just about done, I drizzled them with maple syrup, gave the pan a toss, and removed them to a bowl.
Meanwhile, I prepared a pancake batter using polenta (medium again, I didn’t want my pancakes to be too crunchy) and cassonade.
When the pears were done, I wiped out the pan, coated it with a thin layer of oil, and began cooking the pancakes.
They came out great, from the very first batch! I don’t know if it’s the polenta, the new pan, or the gas stove, but these were some of the least frustrating pancakes I’ve ever made. Feeling triumphant, I plated them up, spooned the pears on top, and in a last-minute inspiration, topped them with a dollop of crème fraîche.
Needless to say, they were fantastic.