For Vegan MoFo, I’m doing a series called Back in Thyme, in which I travel to other periods of my life. Today I’m setting the date to the year 1986…
When I was growing up, most of the meals in our house were Midwestern standards – casseroles, stews, chili, spaghetti… So that’s why it came as a total surprise when my parents offered up a meal one night unlike anything my brothers and I had experienced in the past.
My parents had gone to a dinner party at the home of my dad’s coworker who was Italian. There they were served polenta with tomato sauce. But instead of serving it on individual plates or even family-style where people could ladle out the amount they’d like, the hosts poured the hot, creamy polenta onto their dinner table. The polenta cooled as it spread, slightly hardening at the edges. Then they topped the polenta with tomato sauce, handed the guests napkins and forks, and everyone dug into the section of polenta closest to them. (I’ve also read about some parties where guests cut into the polenta in front of them in a big square shape, making their own polenta plate, and then adding the sauce or topping of their own choosing.)
This was long before I had learned about devouring a platter of Ethiopian wots with injera for a plate. At that time the only communal foods I was used to eating were pizzas and nachos. So when my mom told us that the dinner plates could stay in the cupboard that night, we were all perplexed. (Wait a second… Maybe that’s why she was so excited about that meal idea.) Instead of pouring it across the table, she poured the hot polenta onto a big, clean wooden board and topped it with sauce. We all grabbed our forks and scooped up the soft polenta, leaning over the table as we dug deeper and deeper into the platter. There was a feeling of excitement in the air as we ate directly from the serving platter, something that would be frowned upon in most other occasions.
Although it was a new food to me then, polenta is something I make very regularly now. (You can find it on my blog with uses for breakfast, fried with a marinara dipping sauce, grilled, topped with asparagus and chickpeas, and stacked with cashew cream and barbecue sauce-covered squash.) My mom spent a long time making it from cornmeal, but I always use the De la Estancia brand, which is very finely ground and therefore cooks in less than five minutes. (Plus, because it is so finely ground, the polenta is smooth like mashed potatoes.)
For an equally easy topping, I made an artichoke and bell pepper topping using jarred marinated artichoke hearts. (I used the Trader Joe’s brand, which are chopped, but feel free to use whichever marinated artichoke hearts you prefer.) They are already covered in spices, and so I just sautéed them with lots of minced garlic, fresh-from-the-farmers-market bell pepper, and capers. (For a heartier option, adding cannellini beans would be a great choice.) To keep the hands-on quality for this romantic dinner for two, I served them with slices of juicy summer tomatoes and olives. Just add forks.