In the United States, polenta is typically served as a side dish. But in Italy, it is often the main attraction—a real showstopper. I’ve been seated at a table with friends when the cook arrived from the kitchen with the pot of polenta. Instead of ladling the polenta onto our empty plates, as I first expected, the cook poured the polenta from the pot straight onto a wooden board in the center of the table. Steamy and inviting, it crept outward like hot lava.
This take on polenta is a showstopper in its own right: its striking green color is beautiful and unexpected. It’s so stunning you can skip the board and just haul the pot to the table. The healthy dose of kale purée that colors the cornmeal adds lots of flavor, too. You taste the sweetness of the corn polenta first, then a hint of garlic and finally that green minerality of kale at the end.
Serves 6 to 8 as a side
1 tablespoon plus 1 teaspoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt
2 cups coarse stone-ground polenta
1/4 cup extra-virgin olive oil
1/2 cup Kale Purée (see below)
2 ounces Parmesan cheese, finely grated
3 tablespoons mascarpone
Coarsely ground black pepper
Combine 7 cups of water and the salt in a medium pot and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Gradually add the polenta, whisking as you pour. Keep whisking until the polenta starts to thicken and looks like it’s one with the water, about 2 minutes. Turn the heat to low (the polenta should steam and tremble, but only rarely erupt with bubbles) and cook, stirring every now and again, until the polenta is tender but still coarse in texture, about 45 minutes.
Stir in the olive oil, kale purée, and most of the Parmesan and keep cooking, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes more. Take the pot off the heat and fold in 2 tablespoons of the mascarpone (it’s nice to run into a little pocket of mascarpone, so don’t stir too much). Top with the remaining mascarpone and Parmesan, and as much black pepper as you’d like.
If it weren’t for this dish, I wouldn’t be where I am today. I was still a young cook in England wondering what I’d do next when I saw Rose Gray and Ruth Rogers, chefs at London’s River Café, on the telly. At the time, food TV wasn’t all clever editing and pretty colors. Their show on the BBC just showed them, cooking. I watched them make this four-ingredient puree and toss it in a pan with some penne. They were accomplished chefs, but the food they were making wasn’t complicated at all. I wanted to cook like that. So I called up River Café and talked my way into a tryout. I went on to work there, and Rose and Ruth became my mentors and friends. I’m grateful that they never tried my first go at the dish, which I cooked immediately after I switched off the telly. I used shit olive oil and it wasn’t very good. Please don’t make the mistake I did.
Makes a generous 1 cup
5 medium garlic cloves, peeled
1 pound Tuscan kale, thick stems removed (about ½ pound after trimming)
Kosher salt 1 teaspoon Maldon or another flaky sea salt
1/2 cup extra-virgin olive oil
Put 4 of the garlic cloves in a medium pot, fill it with water, cover, and bring the water to a boil over high heat. Add enough kosher salt so that the water tastes slightly salty and add the kale, prodding to submerge it. Cook uncovered until the kale is tender and tears easily, 2 to 3 minutes.
Fish out the boiled garlic cloves from the pot and reserve them. Drain the kale in a colander and when it’s cool enough to handle, squeeze out as much water as you can. Roughly chop the kale, the boiled garlic, and the raw garlic.
Combine the kale, garlic, and Maldon salt in a food processor. Process, stopping occasionally to prod and stir, for about 45 seconds, then add the oil and process, stirring once or twice, to a fairly smooth puree. Whenever I make this at one of my restaurants, I use a Vita-prep to make the puree silky smooth, but I like a slightly coarse puree too.
The puree keeps in an airtight container in the fridge for up to 5 days.
Note: Before I use Tuscan kale, I like to remove the thick stems. I’ve seen home cooks do this with a knife, which you can do if you fancy. I have a quicker way. Working one leaf at a time, firmly grab the end of the stem with one hand. With the other, use your thumb and index finger to firmly pinch together the bottom of the leaf on either side of the stem and pull away from the stem end, stripping off the leaves in one go.
From “A Girl and Her Greens” by April Bloomfield. Copyright 2015 April Bloomfield. Excerpted by permission of Ecco, an imprint of HarperCollins Publishers.