Provençal Vegetable Ragout with Soft Cheese Polenta

finished ragoutwpolentaBSpring has popped here in Atlanta and we are leafed out! It’s been so pretty here, but the weather continues to be fickle…hot one day and downright cold the next with freezing temperatures coming this weekend, which is not good for azaleas. Still, the longer days and beautiful spring colors are most welcome.

A few weeks ago as the first buds were starting to show, we took a jaunt up to Cashiers, North Carolina for the weekend. It was still very much winter there, but the hiking was magnificent. Our close proximity to Highlands—which is only 15 minutes from Cashiers—meant that we could check out some very good new restaurants. One of them was Wild Thyme Gourmet. This restaurant used to be in a very small cottage a block or so off the main street of Highlands. They had little to no seating other than outdoors, but we had lunch there a couple of times and it was good. A few years ago they moved into a much larger space right on the main street and expanded their menu. It is now a fine restaurant worthy of reservations!

The night we dined at Wild Thyme Gourmet, both my husband and I were drawn to the vegetarian dishes on the menu. He ordered the ricotta and tapenade stuffed ravioli with fresh basil and tomato sauce. I ordered a Provençal vegetable ragout with soft polenta. The vegetables were meltingly delicious with a slightly smoky and rich undertone and were incorporated into a tomatoey sauce with briney kalamata olives. This was served atop a nutty and cheesey tasting soft polenta with just a few crumbles of soft, fresh goat cheese scattered on top. Both dishes were outstanding, so much so that the taste haunted me all the way back to Atlanta…and you know what that means!

So here’s my recreation of that delicious dish, which started off by making Jacques Pépin’s exceptionally wonderful version of tapenade which you can see here. While it wasn’t exactly like the dish at the restaurant, we thought it was every bit as good. And you guessed it, the next post will be my husband’s ravioli dish, so stay tuned.

finished ragoutwpolenta2

Provençal Vegetable Ragout with Soft Cheese Polenta
Serves 6

For the Ragout:
medium 
uncooked zucchini, split in half lengthwise
medium yellow summer squash, split in half lengthwise
1 each red, yellow, orange and green bell pepper, halved, stemmed and seeded
2 Tablespoons olive oil
1 medium red onion, peeled and diced
1 Tablespoon minced garlic
3 medium plum tomatoes, diced
1/4 cup tomato paste
1 1/2 Tablespoons Kalamata olive tapenade, preferably homemade
12 Kalamata olives, pitted and halved
1 1/2 fluid oz. Pernod or Pastis liquor
1 1/2 oz. unsalted vegetable stock, preferably homemade
1 Tablespoon Italian Parsley, chopped
2 teaspoons fresh thyme leaves, chopped
1 Tablespoon fresh basil, chopped, plus extra leaves for garnish
1 Tablespoon soft fresh goat cheese, crumbled

For the Polenta:
3 cups unsalted vegetable stock, preferably homemade
3/4 cup skim or 1% milk
Tablespoons half-and-half
cup whole-grain yellow cornmeal
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano Reggiano cheese

Freshly ground black pepper and kosher salt

Place the halves of zucchini, squash and peppers on a medium high heat grill or grill pan and grill both sides just until you have nice char marks. Remove from the heat and dice into 1/2 inch pieces.

Place olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onion and the garlic and cook until fragrant. Add the zucchini, squash, and peppers and cook, stirring occasionally, until vegetables are starting to get tender. Add the tomato, tomato paste, olives, tapenade, vegetable stock, herbs and the Pernod or Pastis and cook on low heat, covered, until the tomatoes are soft and all the ingredients are integrated, about 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Season to taste with salt and pepper. Turn off heat and leave covered while making the polenta.

Bring the 3 cups vegetable stock, milk and half and half to a gentle boil. Add the cornmeal slowly while whisking and then turn the heat to low. Continue to whisk until the polenta is creamy and tender to the bite, about 5-8 minutes. Add the parmesan and some freshly ground black pepper. Taste and add salt if needed. Serve 3/4 cup polenta with 1/6 of the ragout on top. Finish with a tiny sprinkle of goat cheese and a spring of basil, if desired.

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For those of you “Jones-ing” for spring, rest assured it is on its way. Here are some pics from our yard and neighborhood to tide you over.

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An Adieu to Strawberries: Individual Strawberry Crisps

They weren't plentiful this year, but they sure were pretty and sweet!

They weren’t plentiful this year, but they sure were pretty and sweet!

Although it seemed unusually short, we did have a brief strawberry season here and the few I was able to procure were very sweet and lovely. They were from North Carolina and Florida, not Georgia berries. I think we had too much rain for a good local crop this year, in fact.

The first round of berries were consumed for breakfast in short order. The second round involved a big blowout berry sale, and I felt compelled to make a dessert. Thinking I would still have more berries coming to make a shortcake this year, I decided to do a crisp first. Alas, I was wrong about the first part of that statement, but this new little twist on my older version of a crisp was absolutely outstanding! Good enough to revisit and share with you today, I think. Making individual servings versus a large pan of crisp concentrated all the flavors of the berries, juices and even the crisp component, into a truly divine dessert. Even if you don’t have fresh and local strawberries, this is a great way to enjoy any berry or peach crisp. But hopefully you do have some strawberries coming your way and can give the following recipe a try!

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But before I post the modified recipe below, I must show you the last of the spring flowers from both my garden and my mom’s garden. I know we still have a couple of weeks of Spring left, but it sure feels more like Summer around here right now, and the spring flowers are gone for this year. Above is another little slideshow of flowers for your enjoyment. Have a happy Monday!

The key to this recipe is definitely individual servings. The smaller delivery vehicle concentrates the flavors!

The key to this recipe is definitely individual servings. The smaller delivery vehicle concentrates the flavors!

What? No strawberries? No worries, this will work with apples, peaches, cherries or berries. The Grand Marnier is good with cherries, but you can change up the liqueur to suit the fruit and yourself…peaches and a splash of amaretto or bourbon, perhaps? Or you can omit the alcohol altogether. You can also try lemon zest instead of orange…it’s all good!

Individual Strawberry Orange and Almond Crisps
Makes 6

For the berries:
2 1/2 lbs. fresh strawberries, stems removed and sliced
zest of one orange
1/3 cup sugar, preferably cane sugar
2 Tablespoons Grand Marnier
1 Tablespoon flour

For the topping:
3/4 cup flour
1/3 cup cane sugar
1/3 cup light brown sugar
1/8 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 cup rolled (not quick cooking) oats
1/4 cup blanched slivered almonds, coarsely chopped
1/4 lb. (I stick) unsalted butter, cold and diced

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Butter six 1-cup baking ramekins generously and set aside.

In a large bowl, combine the berries, zest, sugar, Grand Marnier and flour, stirring to mix well and set aside while you make the topping.

In a small bowl combine the flour, both sugars, salt, oats, almonds and the butter, and use your hands to lightly work the butter into the dry ingredients until it just becomes crumbly with pea-sized pieces of butter.

Transfer the berries and their juices to the prepared ramekins and divide evenly. Top each evenly with the crumble topping. Place the ramekins on a cookie sheet that has been completely covered in aluminum foil and place the whole in the oven and bake for about 30-35 minutes at 350 degrees until the filling is bubbling and the topping is a light golden brown and crisp.  Remove from the oven and allow it to sit for about 5-10 minutes. Serve warm or at room temperature with vanilla bean ice cream.

The full Strawberry Moon!

This post wouldn’t be complete without an unedited picture of the full Strawberry Moon!

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Happy Mother’s Day and Some Fresh Flowers

More azaleas from my garden this spring.

More azaleas from my garden this spring.

Rather than let the weekend go by and still no post from me, I’m teasing you with a few images from what I hope will be a garden slideshow next week.

Meanwhile, wishing you and yours a very Happy Mother’s Day, be you a mother to a child, a fur kid, fish or fowl! Have a lovely day.

A magnificent double blossomed dogwood tree from a garden tour I attended with my mom.

A magnificent double blossomed dogwood tree from a garden tour I attended with my mom.

Close-up of the double blossom on the dogwood...amazing tree!

Close-up of the double blossom on the dogwood…amazing tree!

Candy striped camellia blossom.

Candy striped camellia blossom.

The tremendous snowball bush in my mother's yard.

The tremendous snowball bush in my mother’s yard.

Sweet double petaled jonquils.

Sweet double petaled jonquils.

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