The following article first appeared in the Daily News Record on January 18, 2012.
It was two days before Christmas. I was up to my eyeballs in sugar and butter, and nothing was coming out right.
There was my homemade mozzarella cheese made from not-quite-spoiled milk that tasted like not-quite-spoiled cheese. There was the pretzel crack—an addictive salted caramel chocolate affair—that didn’t crack, so the chickens ate it, along with some butterscotch caramel bars that resembled something straight out of your Great-Aunt Mildred’s attic. (Obviously, caramel is my nemesis.) There were the orange chocolate chunk cookies that spread out thin as pancakes, the eggnog that tasted flat (perhaps because I left out the rum?), and some peppernuts that weren’t peppery enough.
Lunchtime came, and, discouraged, frustrated, and in desperate need of real food, I set about fixing myself a simple lunch from a bag of fresh greens from my parents’ West Virginia garden and bit of cornmeal that was hanging out in my freezer.
I brought some chicken broth to a boil and sprinkled in a little cornmeal and a pinch of salt. The polenta simmered until thick, at which point I whisked in a small handful of Parmesan to finish it off. While the polenta was cooking, I tore several enormous, dark green collard and kale leaves into pieces and tossed them about in a hot skillet until they were soft, glossy from butter, and slightly blackened in places. I piled the greens on my plate alongside the puddle of polenta, vigorously peppered both, and, practically shaking with excitement (and sugar overload), I dug in.
Oh my. It was the best thing I had eaten all day—bracing, clean, comforting, the perfect counterpoint to all the sweet. The greens were sharp and slightly bitter, the polenta was nubbly with bits of corn and salty from the cheese and broth. With each bite, I felt calmer, less irritable, nourished.
The most amazing part? The simplicity of real food—and that it took all of ten minutes to prepare. My day was redeemed.
Cheesy Polenta with Sauteed Greens
Sauteeing results in firm, full-bodied greens. If you prefer them softer, steam them instead, and be sure to finish them off with a drizzle of brown butter.
1 cup chicken broth or water
1/4 cup coarse cornmeal
a generous pinch of salt
2-4 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan cheese
Bring the broth to a boil. Sprinkle in the cornmeal, whisking steadily. Stir in the salt. Reduce the heat to low and allow to simmer, stirring occasionally for 8-10 minutes, or until thick. Stir in the cheese and taste to correct seasonings.
2-3 cups torn hardy greens, such as kale, collards, mustard, etc., tough stems removed
1 tablespoon butter
pinch of salt
Melt the butter in a skillet, and add the greens and salt. Using a fork, toss the greens until they have brightened in color, softened, and slightly blackened in places.
Spoon the polenta into a bowl, mound the greens on top, and sprinkle with freshly ground black pepper.