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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Light Individual Chicken Pot Pies for Spring!

Plated2 copy2Spring is in the air and I have one more recipe in a lighter vein to share with you as we usher in this beautiful and transitional season. Chicken pot pie!

I really love chicken pot pies any time of the year and I especially love individual ones because you can have a reasonable portion that is just right. Since these pies aren’t the quickest thing to make, it’s wonderful to freeze some of them and then enjoy those goodies at a later date for a quick weeknight dinner. Just thaw, top with your favorite crust, bake, add a salad on the side and you’re good to go.

This particular version of the dish has been lightened up a bit by cutting back on the fat and amping up the vegetables—some of which are roasted, giving them an extra boost of flavor. The filling is still creamy and rich tasting, but uses only a touch of olive oil and butter for flavor, flour to make a roux and some homemade unsalted chicken stock and low fat milk instead of cream to make the sauce. The taste of the sauce is additionally enhanced by a dash of cayenne pepper for a little kick. (You can cut back on the cayenne or eliminate it completely if you are heat sensitive.)

I roasted a whole organic chicken for the meat and made my stock from the carcass, which you can see how to do by clicking on this post. Homemade stock adds unbelievable flavor and richness to any dish, and is well worth the effort. Really there isn’t much effort…you just need to give it a couple of hours on the stove, then cool and strain it. Extra stock freezes well and is really nice to have on hand. You can also buy a pre-roasted organic whole chicken at your grocer and make stock from the carcass, or use a purchased good quality low or no sodium stock to save some time.

outofoven1 copyI made a biscuit topping for the pies in the post I linked to above, but this time I used a bit of puff pastry to top my first round, then topped the pies I froze and thawed later with a purchased refrigerated pie crust just before baking. Any of these options will make a delicious and very satisfying result. My only regret is that we’ve now gone through all of the pies in the freezer, which were as good as freshly made. Time to make some more!

This recipe definitely lends itself to a vegetarian version by substituting another hearty veggie like butternut squash for the chicken, and by using homemade vegetable stock. Enjoy these pies with a spoon to sop up every last bit of the sauce!

Happy Spring!

Light Individual Chicken Pot Pies
Serves 10
Freezes beautifully without crust

small uncooked red potato(es), 1/2 inch dice
1/2 lb. uncooked green snap beans, trimmed and snapped into bite sized pieces
Tbsp olive oil
Tbsp unsalted butter
large uncooked onion, diced
2 large ribs uncooked celery, sliced
large uncooked carrots, peeled and diced
oz. fresh mushrooms, wiped clean and quartered
cloves garlic, minced
tsp kosher salt
1/2 tsp freshly ground black pepper
Tbsp all-purpose flour
cups unsalted home-prepared chicken stock or other unsalted chicken stock
1/2 cup low-fat milk
2 1/2 cups roasted skinless chicken breast and thigh, diced
1/4 tsp cayenne pepper
Tbsp fresh flat leaf parsley, finely chopped
1 1/2 tsp fresh thyme leaves, chopped, plus extra for sprinkling on top
Additional salt and pepper to taste
servings Dufour Frozen Puff Pastry (about 1/2 of one sheet in a 2-sheet, 14 oz. package) OR refrigerated pie crust (you’ll need two of them for 10 rounds)

Preheat the oven to 400 degrees F. Lightly spray 10 one cup ramekins with cooking or olive oil spray.

Step 1: Make two aluminum foil trays and place on a rimmed cookie sheet. Place the potatoes in one tray and the green beans in the other. Season lightly with salt and pepper and roast until tender and lightly browned, about 20 minutes for the potatoes and 15 minutes for the beans, stirring once. Remove from the oven and set aside.

Step 2: Heat the 1 tablespoon of butter and 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the onions, celery and carrot and sauté for about 4-5 minutes. Add the mushrooms, garlic, a little pinch of salt and cook, stirring frequently for 5 minutes. Stir in the 5 tablespoons of flour and stir continuously for about 4 minutes to cook the flour and make a light roux. Add the chicken stock, stirring, and bring the mixture to a boil. Reduce the heat to simmer and cook another 5 minutes or until the sauce begins to thicken, stirring occasionally. Stir in the milk, then simmer another 4 minutes. Add the potatoes, green beans, chicken, cayenne, salt, pepper, parsley and thyme. Stir well to combine. Taste for seasoning and add more salt and pepper if needed. Divide the filing evenly amongst the 10 prepared ramekins. If freezing any pies, allow the filling to cool in the ramekins, then cover them with plastic wrap and place into the freezer on a flat surface. Once frozen, place the covered ramekins into a freezer bag. Thaw before using and then proceed to step 3.

Step 3: Thaw and roll out the pastry according to the package directions. Cut the pastry with a knife into 10 equal portions if using puff pastry, or if using pie crust make 10 slightly larger rounds to fit over your ramekins and pierce them to vent. Place one portion on top of each of the 10 pies, securing the edges of the pastry around the edge of the ramekin. Brush with a little whisked egg wash and sprinkle with some chopped thyme, if desired.

Step 4: Line a cookie sheet with aluminum foil. Place the ramekins on the foil, evenly spaced, and place the pan with ramekins into the oven. Cook the pies in a 400 F. degree oven for about 20 – 25 minutes, or until the chicken filling is simmering and the pastry is puffed, cooked through and golden brown on top. Watch carefully and if your pastry starts to get too brown, cover it with some aluminum foil. When done, remove from the oven and allow to sit for about 5 minutes before serving. Decorate with a bit of chopped fresh parsley and serve with a green salad on the side, if desired. This makes ten servings, and leftovers will keep well for a day in the fridge and can be reheated in the microwave.

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Spring Preview: Greek-Styled Toasted Quinoa Salad

salad5BThough it may not seem like it in some parts, the official beginning of Spring, the Vernal Equinox, is less than a week away. With three days in a row of around 77 degrees last weekend, followed by flowers popping all over the place, my thoughts are turning to warmer weather…even though ours is still a bit of the bi-polar vortex variety. Enter this light, colorful and refreshing quinoa salad.

First, I have a confession to make. I have not been overly fond of quinoa. I’ve tried it many times, but the mushy/slimy texture that I, and others, seem to achieve has made me, well…less than enthusiastic shall we say. But no more. I’ve found the solution to that textural malaise. Toasting is the trick. Not only does it add a wonderful nutty flavor to the grain, but it kind of seals it so that the integrity, or “tooth” stays intact after cooking. And with that one step, I have now become a quinoa fan.

Now this trick may not be news to some of you, but merely seeing the suggestion on a package of quinoa inspired me to try it, and to create this salad for a pot luck pottery class last night. My salad features some favorite ingredients—those components that make up a traditional Greek salad—combined with a light, lemon and oregano enhanced dressing to brighten all of the flavors. This makes for a delicious and healthy dish, fit for a vegetarian meal or as a wonderful side dish. It was a real hit with my fellow classmates and I loved it, too. I’ll be making this again and again as the weather warms, so here it is for you to enjoy. May it remind those of you still suffering through snow, ice and cold temps that Spring is truly on it’s way, so hang in there. Happy weekend!

Greek-Styled Toasted Quinoa Salad
Makes 8-10 servings

For the salad:
1 1/2 cups dry quinoa (I used organic Royal White)
3 cups water
1 1/2 pints cherry tomatoes, sliced in half or quarters, depending on size
1 large (I used English) cucumber, peeled, seeded and small diced
1/4 cup finely chopped flat leaf Italian parsley
1 cup pitted kalamata olives, halved
1/4 cup finely diced red onion
6 oz. crumbled feta cheese

For the dressing:
4 Tablespoons fresh lemon juice
4 Tablespoons good quality extra virgin olive oil
1 large clove of garlic, minced
1/4 teaspoon kosher salt
1/2 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 teaspoon finely chopped fresh oregano

Heat a large, deep sided skillet over medium heat. Add the quinoa and toast it, shaking or stirring it frequently, for about 5 minutes or until it smells fragrant and is just beginning to show a little color. Be careful and don’t burn it. Add the 3 cups of water to the pot, bring the quinoa to a boil, then cover and reduce the heat to a simmer. Allow the quinoa to cook until the grains are translucent and the germ has spiraled out from each grain, about 15 minutes. At this point, most of the water will be absorbed and the grain will still have some tooth to it. Remove it from the heat, take the lid off, fluff it, and allow it to cool in the pan while you compose the remaining ingredients.

In a large bowl, combine the tomatoes, cucumbers, parsley and olives. Add the cooled (it can still be warm, just not hot) quinoa to the bowl and gently stir it into the vegetables to combine. Add the feta and gently stir it in. Combine the dressing ingredients in a small bowl and whisk until emulsified and thickened. Pour the dressing over the salad and gently toss it to coat well. If you have time, cover and allow the flavors to blend (I put mine in the fridge), then serve cold or you can serve this at room temperature right after making it. It will keep well for a day or so in the fridge.

This beautiful ceramic bowl was made by my talented friend, Denise Tombro.

This beautiful ceramic bowl was made by my talented friend, Denise Tombro.

That Thing About Spring

Nothing says spring like Greek marinated and grilled pork loin chops, veggie kabobs and tzatziki sauce...at least to me!

We’re really getting a taste of spring around here now with our temps moving up from the mid to upper 60’s on Saturday to the low 80’s tomorrow and for the foreseeable future…whhaaaat???? Am I living in Florida? Pinch myself…nope, still in Atlanta. Whoa, that’s more like early summer!

Anyway, the birds are returning and the bees are buzzing, and all this activity resulted in some rather demonic energy on my part last weekend. Continue reading