Saturday, September 25, 2010

The "Shoulder" Season and Polenta with Fresh Sweet Corn

It has been a while since I posted a picture of my purchases from the Farmers' Market. During our long summer growing season the contents of my market bag change only slightly from week to week. But there has been more change in recent weeks as the days have shortened and the weather has cooled a bit. This week my purchases are a perfect representation of that brief intersection of the seasons when the summer produce is waning and the fall crops are filling the stalls.

I have heard the moment in the harvest, when the lines between the seasons are blurred, referred to as the "shoulder" season. Of course, it occurs four times in a year—most prominently in my climate between Winter and Spring and then Summer and Fall. During these two shoulder seasons, not only is there a change in the ingredients themselves, but there is a marked change in the way food is prepared. Summer food is distinguished by vibrant, fresh flavors and quick preparations, while Autumn and Winter fare tends toward comforting, often hearty and complex flavors.  These cold season foods usually take time and forethought to prepare. During the few weeks when the seasons meet, these distinctions are not so clear. My last post of a creamy pasta with summer squash and walnuts is a good example, as is Soupe au Pistou. I love to cook during this time of year. My cooking really seems spontaneous since the food I am hungry for is largely dictated by the changing weather.

A favorite dish that falls into this shoulder season is soft polenta with sautéed sweet corn. I tend to think of polenta as stick-to-your-ribs, cold-weather food—perfect as an accompaniment to rich braises and hearty ragùs. Frequently when I prepare polenta I like to fold other things into it—sautéed mushrooms for example, or sweet potato purée—cool season foods, for the most part. It would be natural to think of stirring in some sweet corn since polenta is simply dried, ground corn. But for most of the times when polenta feels right, this isn't really an option. And when fresh corn is in season, polenta is not very appealing to me. During the winter there is of course frozen corn, but it isn't quite the same.

Fortunately there is this window—this shoulder season—when the cooling weather that makes polenta seem appropriate coincides with the final week or so of the local corn harvest. I took advantage of this at a recent dinner class where I prepared polenta with fresh sweet corn to accompany one of my favorite dishes of braised pork with fennel and olives. It tasted so good to me that I prepared a batch at home this week to go with some garlicky sautéed Swiss Chard (which is just now returning to the market) and a spice-rubbed chicken breast (I used paprika, cumin and chile powder.  Rub to taste all over the chicken, along with some salt and pepper and follow the directions for a pan-roasted breast.  I used a boneless, skin-on breast this time, but the method is the same.  The cooking time will be less.).

The farmer that I buy my corn from told me this morning that next week will be the last week for corn this year, so my opportunity to prepare this, and other dishes like it, is fast drawing to a close.

Fresh Corn Polenta

2 T. unsalted butter
1 ½ c. fresh corn (from about 2 ears)
2 t. thyme leaves
1 recipe Basic Polenta (see below)
Salt & Pepper

Heat a large sauté pan over medium heat. Add the butter. When it foams, add the corn along with the thyme, about ¼ t. salt and freshly ground pepper. Sauté until the corn is just cooked through and is tender—about 3 to 4 minutes.

Remove from the heat. Stir the corn into the hot polenta just before serving. Serves 6 to 8.

Basic Polenta:
1 c. Polenta (organic stone-ground, if available)
salt & pepper
3 T. unsalted butter

Bring a large pot of water to a simmer—this water will be used in the polenta and also as a bain-marie (double boiler) over which to cook the polenta. While the water is coming to a boil, place 1 t. salt in a 1 ½-to 2-qt. stainless bowl. When the pot of water comes to a boil, measure 3 ½ cups of the water into the bowl with the salt. Using a whisk, stir the water into a whirlpool as you slowly pour in the polenta. Keep whisking in the same direction until the polenta is completely blended in and there are no lumps. Set the bowl over the simmering pot of water. Continue to whisk every few moments until you can see that the grains of polenta have begun to absorb the water and are suspended in the liquid and no longer settling in a mass at the bottom of the bowl. This should only take a few minutes. Cover the bowl with foil, sealing the edges securely. Cook for 1 ½ hours, keeping the water at a simmer. Occasionally uncover and stir the polenta with a rubber spatula—adding more hot water if the polenta becomes too stiff. Reseal the foil after each stirring. When finished, the polenta should be thick, soft & smooth and have no raw taste. It may be used immediately or held for up to 4 hours over steaming water. Add more salt and pepper to taste. Stir in the butter just before serving.

(Recipe for Fresh Corn Polenta from Sunday Suppers at Lucques by Suzanne Goin.  Method for Basic Polenta, adapted from The Splendid Table by Lynne Rossetto Kasper.)

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