I don’t have many cookbooks, but the few I have are reliably wonderful. One of my favorites that I really should cook from more is The New Vegetarian Epicure by Anna Thomas. First, I love how the book is arranged — seasonally by meals. That means that I can find something that uses what’s fresh, and I can also plan out a whole menu without flipping between too many pages of the book. The recipes are also sophisticated and delicious, and though they’re often a bit more complex than ones in my other cookbooks, they’re definitely worth it — especially when we have company over.
Friday night our friends Annie and Devin were coming over, so I started searching through my cookbooks for inspiration. I knew I wanted to make focaccia bread again because I’d told them about making it and how delicious it was, so I figured I’d do something at least somewhat Italian. I thought about pasta or risotto, but then, searching through The New Vegetarian Epicure, I stumbled across “A Simple Autumn Dinner Party,” which involved focaccia (perfect!), Torta di Polenta with Three Cheeses, Roasted Tomato Sauce, and Parfaits of Fruit and Mascarpone. It also included a lima bean soup that sounded tasty, but it’s still pretty warm here in LA, so I decided to steal from a different menu in the book and make a roasted beet and asparagus salad.
There was a lot of preparation involved in this meal, from peeling and dicing about 18 tomatoes, chopping 4 onions and roasting and peeling 16 beets, to making sure everything was timed properly to be ready for dinner time. The good thing about this dinner, though, was that it was really easy to get everything out when it was hot and ready — and I didn’t have to spend much time in the kitchen while the company was over — because the salad and tomato sauce could be done ahead of time, the polenta torta got to stay in the fridge until I was ready to heat it up, and the dessert could be done after the meal.
That doesn’t mean I wasn’t rushing around the kitchen before they arrived, but it was nice not to have much to tend to other than serving the dishes when we had company. Somehow I mastered my time management and everything worked out really well.
I started with the beet salad and got the red and golden beets roasting right away because they were going to need to marinate in the dressing for a few hours. While they were roasting, I scalded and peeled the tomatoes for the sauce, chopped up the onions and got the asparagus ready. The asparagus and tomato sauce went in the oven at the same time — the sauce was going to take two and a half hours, so it needed to get going, no matter what the temperature was going to be.
I made the dough for the bread and set it aside to rise, then started the vinaigrette for the beet salad, which included olive oil, balsamic vinegar, a shallot, roasted garlic and some fresh squeezed orange juice. Then I peeled all the beets — a ridiculously messy job that makes me worry that my hands will remained stained red for the evening (though they won’t) — and chopped them up. I let the salad ingredients marinate in separate bowls, and I checked on the sauce and gave it a stir.
I had to let the bread rise a little longer than called for — maybe 30 or 40 minutes more — because the oven wasn’t going to be free of the the sauce for a while, but bread can be pretty forgiving when it’s rising, and it didn’t seem to have any negative effect at all. I kneaded it a second time, rolled it out to let it proof, then started working on the polenta.
I chopped and lightly sauteed a leek, half a red onion and some garlic, and brought 4 cups of vegetable stock to a simmer. I whisked in one cup of yellow corn meal — just the regular kind you get in a box at the store — and had to stir it continuously for 10-15 minutes, which got quite tiring. I’d never made polenta before, and it was a bit surprising. I didn’t realize you needed to little corn meal for so much liquid, and I didn’t realize how thick it would get so quickly.
After the 15 minutes of stirring, I added the onion and leek, and also added some goat cheese, gouda and parmesan, then poured the mixture into a cake pan and put it into the fridge to set up.
Once the roasted tomato sauce was done, I took it out of the oven and put the focaccia in — I put rosemary and sea salt on the top again — and then I was just about done.
The bread came out of the oven just a few minutes after Annie and Devin arrived, and when we were ready to sit down, I put the salads together — I couldn’t put them together earlier because the beets would have turned everything red. I put the polenta torta onto a baking sheet and into the oven for 15 minutes along with the tomato sauce in a covered bowl so everything could heat up.
The focaccia was a little lighter in color than last time, but tasted just as delicious. We finished off even more of it, and I think it was a bit lighter on the inside because of the extra rising time. All that olive oil and salt, and the fluffy warm bread… it’s just incredible.
The salad was delicious and full of flavor, and pretty with its red-yell0w-green combo. The golden beets were hard to find and pretty pricey — there were only three bunches of baby golden beets at the fancy new Pavilions, which were about the size of radishes — but they did add a really nice touch.
The polenta looked and tasted great with the tomato sauce and an extra sprinkling of parmesan and basil. It was light and fluffy and had a delicate cheesy flavor. It was very easy to serve cut up into wedges.
Annie helped me mix up the mascarpone with some cream, sugar and lemon zest while I hulled the sweet strawberries and added a bit of sugar and lemon juice. It was a tasty way to end the meal and wonderfully simple to make.
We also had a bottle of Gabbiano Chianti Classico, which we enjoyed. I went to the new Pavilions at Santa Monica and Robertson, and their sommelier suggested it. She also suggested an Ecco Pinot Grigio that we didn’t drink. That’s quite a fancy grocery store — and all the employees were really helpful.
This was definitely one of my better dinners so far. I’m excited to try other polenta variations — it’s so simple to make and very delicious!