Monday 24 August 2015

Polenta and pickled pear/apple starter

Blue cheese capped polenta with pickled pears and a walnut salad.
Sweet poached pears waiting for frangipane
Michael, my neighbour, came round with a large pot of pears from his garden. I've not done much with these fruit, they have missed my food radar for some reason - possibly because I hated them as a child, an aversion long since left. As penance I decided to do a sweet and a savoury dish with them. The sweet dish - pear frangipane tart - I'm yet to finish. This is the savoury story: pickled pears with blue cheese polenta and a walnut salad.

It makes a great starter full of contrast and piquancy. It's very easy to assemble just before service/meal time, you can prep everything apart from the cheese melting in the hours beforehand. Scale it up and it would work as a lunch. It's vegetarian too of course. 

I almost reflexively wrote 'light lunch' back there. What does that mean? And why is it always presented as a good thing? You never see recipes for a heavy lunch. But to me that's miles more attractive. One of those luxurious moments in time and place where you have a glass too many of wine... with a friend... and decide to forego your afternoon plans and instead order the cheese board and rinse out a couple of bottles of life as shadows draw across the restaurant wall and waiters grow increasingly bemused at your ever louder reminisces. That's my kind of lunch. No way that's light.

Mike's pears. No idea what type. The grey stuff is old Lego: the large Millennium Falcon in fact. 5000 piece collector's set. We're building it to sell it. A family project over the summer.
From pears it was a short hop to walnuts and thence to blue cheese. I didn't want to do a simple salad; I wanted a carb element. Polenta was obvious but making polenta is a pain, especially for a supper club that may include tardy guests. Bramata polenta, a coarse variety favoured by us foodies, must be stirred for at least an hour, suffering wrist burns from the lava blips. It will easily easily catch on the bottom or worse, set in the pan and on the way, lumps are an ever present threat. 

But no! I remembered reading, that polenta could be prepared in a rice cooker. If true this would be extraordinarily practical and time saving. Rice cookers keep their contents warm, in a state of ready eatability, to be served as needed. I have a Kenwood rice cooker. It's past two decades old but still it's used every week. Surely it couldn't be that easy though?

I added 250g of best bramata grain to the pot and poured on two litres of water,  a tablespoon of salt... and waited. 

After about an hour, without a single stir, I lifted the lid and to be met by gorgeous, light, lumpless, fluffy polenta. Better even than the tediously stirred. It works. Boy, does it work. I poured it into a tin and left it overnight to set. This is massive for me. It means polenta will be easy to include in menus. Before I poured the polenta out I stirred in 100g of butter and  about 50g of grated parmesan.

Rice cooker-ed polenta. Brilliant texture.

Just a note on the salt and water. I made this batch with a 1:4 grain to water ratio. If you want something smoother you could do 1:5. Nigel Slater goes further with a 1:6 ratio; he likes his 'soupy'. I often use milk and water but here just water is fine.

Polenta needs a lot of salt. It's damn near inedible without. I usually go one level tablespoon of Maldon per litre of water (less of table salt), at least but here I knew I was pairing it with a salty blue cheese, so held back slightly. 

Set polenta, sliced.
So much for the polenta, what about the pears? To foil the blue cheese, they had to be pickled, a sweet and spiced pickle. Delia's Christmas special. This is my take of her recipe.

Pickled Pears.

This works just as well with apples. I like to peel and core and cut into thick rings.

Thinly peel the pears and cut into quarters lengthways, removing the pips and core. As with apples, you'll need to store them in some acidulated water (water with a dash of vinegar added) to prevent browning.

In a saucepan mix 275ml of pickling vinegar with 275ml of white wine vinegar and add 350g of caster sugar. Add six cloves, the pared zest of a lemon, a teaspoon of juniper berries and the same of allspice berries. Pink peppercorns would be good too, but I'd run out. Bring the mix to the boil gently, ensuring all the sugar is dissolved.

Once boiling, reduce to a simmer and place in the pear parts. Simmer for 10 minutes until they are just tender and yield to a knife point. They will continue to soften in the pickling liquor. If you have pretty pairs (no sniggering in the back please), You could leave the pears whole and just core them. They will take about 15 minutes cooking in this case. Mine were, let's say, very organic and needed a deal of knife work to make them presentable.

When done, lift out the pears and place in a jar. Boil the remaining liquid hard to reduce by half. Pour this syrup over the pears (they must be completely covered) and chill. They will improve with age and will keep for ever, unless you eat them.

So we have our polenta set and we have our pears pickled. Now to combine around the added attraction of a little walnut salad.

Cut your polenta into shapes and fry in a very little oil. I went for thick oblongs, which once fried looked like fish fingers. Top this with the blue cheese of your choice. I used an excellent French Fourme D'Ambert as that was the best Holtwhites had. If I'd been serving this to guests, I'd have used either Cashel or Beenleigh Blue - I only do British cheese in the restaurant, it's a rule of mine. Grill this for five minutes or so until the cheese starts to bubble and run.

To make the salad: roast some walnuts at 200°C for five minutes until they crisp and darken. Add this to some lambs lettuce. The dressing here needs to be only slightly acid as it's being eaten with a pickle. I mixed three tablespoons of walnut oil with a drop - literally one drop - of toasted sesame oil, a teaspoon of lemon juice, half of French mustard and salt and pepper. Dress the leaves and nuts just before serving.

To serve: centre the warm polenta and serve with a couple of pear pickles, a fistful of a dressed salad and a scattering of black pepper and crushed walnuts.

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