I’m not sure how long it has been since The Child last ate meat, but it’s been at least a couple of years; at any rate, long enough to convince me that this isn’t just some passing phase.
I don’t mind, really. I was a vegetarian myself for about a year, in high school; unfortunately, my cooking skills as well as my mother’s were not really up to the task, so I spent a year eating Kraft Mac and Cheese and grilled swiss cheese sandwiches. I finally abandoned the effort one day when I was overpowered by the smell of my favorite fried chicken place.
If you knew how stunningly mediocre their fried chicken was – salt and grease were the primary seasonings – you would lose all respect for me.
But my cooking has come a long way since then, and, rather helpfully, I’ve learned to appreciate quite a few more vegetables since then. The Child has, unfortunately, not, but she’s getting better. Most spicy things are still off her list, but she’s more willing to give something new a try. She devoured my Artichoke Lemon Hummus, which was quite a surprise, given I spent years watching people eat hummus before I finally dipped a carrot in and tentatively sampled it for the first time.
I keep trying new things and hoping she will like them. The rule at our table is, she doesn’t have to finish something new, but she does have to try it. It seems to be a good rule, and she’s encouraged to say what it is she does or doesn’t like about something, so that she and I can both learn from the experience.
She didn’t like this Polenta and Chard casserole, which I’ve served twice now – both times on Thanksgiving – in hopes that she would put more on her plate than mashed potatoes and bread. She found it “too spicy,” but I’m not sure that cutting the red pepper would help the situation. The spice is somewhat strong, but I found it pleasantly so and didn’t feel it overwhelmed the other flavors, which come together quite nicely.
I used blue cornmeal this year, and I wouldn’t do it again: it was too fine a grind and the polenta remained hopelessly soft no matter how long I cooked it. As important, the blue cornmeal, so pretty in the back, turned a sort of unappetizing gray color once the cheese was added to it. (When I made this dish last year with plain white cornmeal, I used rainbow chard, and the resulting dish was much, much prettier.)
I also thought I was doing the dish a favor buying fresh mozzarella cheese, which was a bit too watery and delicate. I drained it and squeezed out as much moisture as I could before adding it, in part because I was already battling the wateriness of the polenta.
The final dish – although not terribly attractive – was delicious and held its own at the Thanksgiving table. I think, though, that it would do better as the star of the show, with some white wine and perhaps some nice crusty bread. Heated-up leftovers make a wonderful, savory lunch.
- 2 tbsp olive oil
- 1 large white onion, thinly sliced
- 2 garlic cloves, minced
- ¼ tsp dried crushed red pepper
- 1 lb swiss chard, chopped and thick stem sections removed
- 3½ cups water
- 1 tsp salt
- 1 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal
- 1 cup ricotta cheese
- 2 large eggs
- 2 cups coarsely grated mozzarella cheese
- Preheat oven to 350°F. Lightly oil a 2-quart glass baking dish. Heat oil in heavy large deep skillet over medium heat. Add onion; sauté until tender, about 15 minutes. Stir in garlic and crushed red pepper, then chard; cover and cook until chard is tender, stirring occasionally, about 8 minutes. Uncover; stir until any excess liquid in skillet evaporates. Season with salt and pepper.
- Meanwhile, bring 3½ cups water and salt to boil in heavy large saucepan. Gradually stir polenta into boiling water. Reduce heat to medium-low; simmer until polenta is very thick, stirring frequently, about 10 minutes. Remove from heat.
- Whisk ricotta and eggs in bowl; whisk in 1 cup hot polenta. Stir ricotta mixture into polenta in saucepan. Spread half of polenta mixture in baking dish. Spread half of chard mixture over. Sprinkle with half of mozzarella. Repeat layering with remaining polenta, chard, and cheese. Bake until puffed and brown on top, about 45 minutes. Cool 30 minutes.