When I was growing up, my mom would make corn meal mush. This was the New Englander’s version of “polenta,” but since we hold not a single Italian gene, it was just mush to us.
We had it for breakfast as cereal, sweetened with maple syrup, as a starch at dinner, and the leftovers were transformed into little cornmeal cakes fried in bacon grease for breakfast or a side dish. We kids loved the latter recipe the best, especially if we got a fried egg on top.
Simple, summer flavors
I found some beautiful cherry tomatoes at the farm stand yesterday and I knew they’d be wonderful in a quick sauté with onions and lots of garlic. Fresh basil tops it all off.
This dish is quick and comforting! It’s one of the tastiest things I’ve made for a while, and the flavor is out of this world. My husband absolutely adored this and dove in for seconds. I think he would have gone for thirds if I hadn’t given him the heads up that this was also going to be lunch the next day!
It’s all about the fresh
This dish is all about the fresh tomatoes and the garlic. Don’t skimp on the garlic!
The charred artichokes and red pepper add lovely flavor, but you can substitute jarred roasted red peppers if you have them on hand. I used canned artichokes since the season for fresh around here is about a minute in September.
But it needs a little crunch
I like using the pistachios in this otherwise crunchless dish, but you can use whatever nuts you like, and I guess if you want to Italianize it, you could use pine nuts, just look for those from Italy and not China.
The cornmeal or “polenta” is your choice
Polenta is a dish made from cornmeal, but you usually see cornmeal that is to be used for polenta simply labeled as polenta. Use whatever polenta or cornmeal you like, even the instant that cooks in three minutes if that is your preference; what you lack in texture, you’ll make up for in time if that is a consideration. The rule of thumb for making polenta as a starch served with other ingredients is four parts of water to one part of cornmeal, or a quart of water to a cup of cornmeal. I made a large batch so that I could make fried corn cakes the next day, but measure according to your needs.
If you like, this can be totally vegan, just omit the anchovy paste and scallops, and double up on the artichokes.
Seared Scallops, Artichokes, and Tomatoes over Polenta
4 tbsp. extra virgin olive oil, divided
1 lb. dry sea scallops
¼ cup all-purpose flour or cornstarch
1 large Vidalia onion, sliced
5 cloves of garlic, divided
1 tsp. anchovy paste
1 tsp. fennel seeds
1/3 cup dry white or rose wine
1 pint cherry tomatoes
1 small roasted red pepper, chopped or sliced
4 charred artichokes, quartered
1 1/2 cups medium ground cornmeal or “polenta”
1/2 can light coconut milk
¼ cup pistachios or other nut, toasted
Prep your vegetables: Char your artichokes and red pepper in a cast-iron frying pan over high heat. You just want to get a little color and flavor on them. Toast your nuts just until they start to become fragrant. Slice your onion, and slice your cherry tomatoes in half, or quarters if they are large. Mince your garlic, or pulse it in a small food processor.
Put your polenta water on to boil.
Pat scallops dry and remove the small muscle on the side if it hasn’t already been cleaned. Season with salt and pepper, and dust lightly with a bit of flour or cornstarch. Shake off any excess, this is just a bare coat.
Heat a large skillet over medium high and add 1 tablespoon of the oil. When shimmering, add the scallops, pressing down to ensure good contact. Cook for about two minutes, peek under one to check their progress and if seared, turn them, and sprinkle with about a third of the garlic. Cook an additional one to two minutes, then remove to a plate, scraping all the garlic bits along, and tent with foil to keep warm. Those crispy bits of garlic lend tons of flavor to this dish, so scrape every bit of it out!
In the same pan, add the rest of the oil and the onion. Let this sauté until just starting to brown on the edges, then add the anchovy paste, the rest of the garlic, and the fennel seeds. Cook for about two minutes, until the garlic is nice and fragrant and add the wine, scraping the bottom of the pan to remove the glaze.
Dump in the tomatoes, red peppers, and artichokes, season with salt and pepper, and let come to a simmer. If you like, you can add a pinch of crushed red pepper flakes at this point as well.
In the meantime, cook your polenta according to the package or type of grind of cornmeal. Whatever kind you are using, including the instant, you want to have your water at a full boil and very slowly whisk the cornmeal in to avoid lumps. Continue whisking for a few minutes, then reduce the heat, cover, and simmer, stirring about every five minutes. I used a medium grind and after I whisked in the cornmeal, it took about 20 minutes to cook. A coarse grind would take a bit longer.
To plate: Pour as much polenta as you wish to serve in a deep platter. Top with the tomato mixture, getting every bit of the sauce out, and place the scallops on top. Sprinkle the nuts and basil over all.
Second Act: Fried Cornmeal Cakes
This is a perfect supper side dish, lunch with a salad, or breakfast with an egg on top.
After making your polenta, pour into a greased baking pan to whatever depth you like. Cover with plastic directly on top of the cornmeal, and refrigerate overnight. All polenta will turn into a unified mass the next day!
Cut into squares of desired size. Heat a large skillet or cast-iron frying pan and add oil of choice. Fry the squares for about seven minutes over medium high, then turn when browned. Try to turn only once so they don’t fall apart.
Sprinkle with cheese if you like, and cover the pan so the cheese melts. Serve as is, or top with an egg, and a bit of hot sauce.
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