You know how on Cheers, every time Norm would walk into the bar, all the patrons and wait staff would turn to look at him, and call out in unison, “NORM!” ? I remember thinking, “Sure, yeah, maybe on teevee life is like that. “
Ah, yes, wouldn’t it be great to be received with that kind of palpable jubilation every time you set foot in the local watering hole? Where just walking through the door stirs up the enthusiasm like leaves on a country road, fluttering in the wake of a fast car? Where everybody’s glad you came? When it comes right down to it, don’t you wanna be where everybody knows your name?
Sorry. Couldn’t resist.
Years ago, in my twenties, I did experience that sort of instant, joyous recognition, albeit vicariously. At the time, I lived in the same low-rise apartment building as my friend Babe. We were sort of like Mary and Rhoda (whom I seem to refer to rather a lot lately, don’t you think?), since my apartment was situated (literally) directly above hers . We’d often dash up and down the single staircase between floors to visit each other’s place, to share dinner or to jointly watch our soap in the evenings (at the time, Babe had both gainful employment and a VCR–both of which I lacked).
Once in a while, we’d head out to dinner at one of the neighborhood haunts, living as we did in the part of town affectionately known as “Yonge and Eligible”, near so many good restaurants. And no matter where we went–be it Chinese, Italian, Greek, Pastry Shop, Juice Bar–the owner of the joint would brighten visibly when my friend entered, and, wiping his hands on his apron and gesturing with a flourish, would greet her with a most animated shout of “ BABE!!” before positioning us in a prime seat in the restaurant. (Well, in the interest of verisimilitude, I should admit that he didn’t actually call her “Babe,” of course, because (a) that would make him sound far too much like Sonny Bono; (b) this is a dramatization, and that’s not her real name, but a pseudonym; and (c) calling a woman “Babe,” even if this scene supposedly took place in the 1980s, would be horribly sexist, and we’ll have none of that type of thing on this blog.) More often that not, we were also presented with a complimenatry appetizer, or gratis aperatif, or dessert on the house . . . needless to say, I loved basking in the glow of my friend’s semi-celebrity status and thoroughly enjoyed the perks of stardom, even if only by propinquity.
One of the places we frequented was Grazie, a compact Italian bistro with about a dozen seats, scratchy wooden floors and a jovial staff who served the best fresh pastas I’d ever had (a testament to its appeal: the place still exists–albeit in a larger and more commercial incarnation–and is still bustling and bursting with patrons each night, almost 20 years later).
When I think of polenta, I think of Grazie. Admittedly, that wasn’t always the case; it took some convincing for me to try the cornmeal-based appetizer, as my only other experience with the stuff was a kind of gruel my mother served for breakfast when I was a kid. Into the soft, yellow mush, Mom would swirl large-curd cottage cheese, resulting in whorls of white, slightly soured lumps distributed throughout, vaguely resembling the wiggly larvae you find in infested apples. My parents called this ”Spoon Bread,” and while my dad loved it, in me it always elicited a slight wave of nausea. (Oh, wait. Even just thinking about it–excuse me for a moment).
So when I learned that polenta was thick-cooked cornmeal, cooled and often cut into disks, I was a bit reluctant. I did fancy Grazie’s fresh tomato sauce with basil mounded atop the offending polenta, however, so I decided to give it a try anyway. (I mean, would my friend Babe, the star customer, the very mascot of the place, steer me wrong?) Of course, I was completely enchanted. Once I realized that polenta didn’t need to be sweet, didn’t need to contain cottage cheese, and–most important–didn’t need to be soft and mushy, I was on a mission to create as many polenta dishes as I could. And I’ve been experimenting ever since.
It seemed the perfection occasion, a couple of weeks ago when our friends Gemini II and her husband came to dinner, to make a recipe for Herbed Polenta Appetizers from the glorious New Vegetarian Entertaining by Jane Noraika. This is the kind of book that you want to savor, leaf ing through it slowly and deliberately, imprinting every image on your mind like the photos from your first trip abroad. The original recipe contained feta cheese, but, since I wanted to try out the ”Feta-ish” from Alisa Fleming’s new book, Go Dairy Free, I decided to use that in place of the dairy version.
The result was a perfect finger food–a firm, smooth polenta base suffused with fresh dill and salty, briny feta, all topped with a slightly sweet, slightly sour sundried tomato tapenade. And I should note that no one realized this was vegan. These bites are also a feast for the eyes, with their sunny yellow, bright green and creamy white base, and mound of deep carmine capped off with a black olive slice. The four of us had no trouble polishing off the entire tray (16 pieces!!) in no time, and probably would have eaten more, if there had been any.
Maybe the owners of the local Italian resto don’t recognize me quite yet, and maybe I’ll never acquire the mysterious allure of my friend Babe. But after the appreciative reception I got for these delectable squares, I started to feel a little bit like Norm, after all.
With all the herby goodness going on in these bites, I thought this would be the perfect submission to Weekend Herb Blogging, organized by Haalo and this week hosted by Marija of Palachinka.
Herb and Feta Polenta with Sundried Tomato Tapenade
The original recipe calls for cutting the large polenta block into 2-inch (10 cm) rounds with cookie cutters, but because I’m basically lazy (and I’m just not Lolo), I decided to cut the slab into squares. I have to admit that the rounds did look fetching, though.
For the Polenta:
3 Tbsp (15 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1 clove garlic, crushed
3 scallions or green onions, finely chopped
1/4 cup plus 2 Tbsp (90 ml) polenta or yellow cornmeal
about 1 cup (240 ml) tofu “feta” (use this recipe or another that you like)
small handful of fresh dill, coarsely chopped
sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste
8-16 pitted black olives, sliced, to serve
For the Tapenade:
2 ounces (55-60 g) sundried tomatoes, soaked in boiling water for 10 minutes
1/4 cup (60 ml) extra virgin olive oil
1 Tbsp (15 ml) balsamic vinegar
1/2 red serrano chile (or less, to taste), seeded and coarsely chopped
small handful of fresh basil leaves
Make the polenta: Heat the oil over medium heat in a nonstick frypan or saucepan. Add the garlic and scallions and cook for 10 minutes or so, until the onions are translucent. Pour in 1-1/4 cups (300 ml) boiling water, then add the polenta in a steady stream, whisking to prevent lumps.
Continue cooking according to package directions (probably for 20 minutes or so, over low heat, stirring constantly, until the polenta is very thick). Remove from heat and gently stir in the feta and dill; add salt and pepper to taste. Pour into the prepared pan and chill at least 6 hours, or overnight.
Meanwhile, make the tapenade: Drain the soaked tomatoes and place in a blender or mini food processor with the 1/4 cup (60 ml) olive oil, vinegar, chile, and basil. Process until fairly smooth. Store in a covered jar in the refrigerator until ready to use.
To assemble: Remove the plastic wrap and place a cutting board over the top of the pan. Holding them tightly together, flip them both over so that the pan is on top and the polenta falls out onto the board. Cut the square of polenta into 16 or 25 squares, depending on how large you’d like them to be. (The original recipe asked you to cut them into rounds with mini cookie cutters, but since I’m lazy and not as talented as Lolo, I just cut them in squares).
Top each with a generous spoonful of tapenade and a few slices of black olives. Garnish with a touch more dill, if desired.