As my penultimate day in Israel transitioned into my ultimate Israeli night, I realized that despite wanting to enjoy the many delicious vegan meals on offer in Tel Aviv (before setting off on my European adventure), I had a lot of food left in my kitchen that needed to be used up. I also had the good fortune to already be spending my time with friends who needed feeding. After a quick stop at the corner store for some supplemental fruits and veggies, I devised a plan to use up the abundance of herbed polenta chilling in my fridge, as well as the garlic and lentils that had been generously given to me by a friend several months ago (I preferred to save personal food items such as these for when I had guests, so that I didn’t incur the wrath of my ever temperamental roommates should I share anything hailing from the communal pantry). Earlier that morning, I had begun my polenta experiments, attempting to both pan-fry and bake the starchy squares. Baking was the clear winner, from the ease of execution , to the crispy exterior. The pan-fry used too much oil, inducing a veritable volcano of grease, while failing to achieve a crisp and golden outer crust. That morning, I served the polenta with a sauce of succulent caramelized onions and creamy techina (because I didn’t have quite enough onions to serve them alone). This style of polenta preparation had the potential to be not just an upscale snack or brunch, but also a deceptively fancy dinner.
Inspired in part by a paté I’d had at lunch the day before, I wanted something similar to top the polenta. While the paté I’d consumed for lunch consisted of a combination of mushroom, cashew and walnut blended to smooth and creamy perfection, I only had lentils (and no blender), which luckily lend themselves exceedingly well to the base of a vegetarian paté. In order to add depth and richness to the lentils, I opted for roasted garlic, with its silky texture and sweet, deep garlic flavor. To heighten the effect, I also threw an onion into the oven, and roasted it until it was also soft and sweet (way easier than traditional caramelization I might add). With the lentils and polenta, or dare I say ‘polentils’ covered, it was time to turn my attention to the meal’s main vegetation, fresh broccoli. While I am normally a big fan of crispy roasted broccoli, I wanted something bright and crunchy to offset the polentils, so I quickly braised the florets with garlic, white wine and lemon juice, infusing the stalks with tons of flavor, without roasting them to death. It was the perfect ending to an incredible eight months in Israel, shared with good friends (and some good wine).
In order to pull this meal off relatively quickly, I recommend making the polenta the night before (or even several days in advance). Then the day of, all you have to do is pop the polenta in the oven with the garlic and onion, and let the squares bake while everything else cooks. I would put the lentils in to boil next (and don’t salt the water until they are cooked, otherwise they will take longer). Should you decide to cook the lentils in advance, warm them gently before mashing. To my American readers, sorry for the metric measurements, but I followed the initial cooking instructions given on the bag of Italian polenta, which was in grams and liters. Feel free to follow the given instructions for whichever brand you buy, and rather season according to my suggestions.
Hebred Polenta Squares
- 500 g Italian coarse ground polenta
- 2 liters of water
- 1 tbsp each: dried thyme, oregano, and basil
- salt to taste
- olive oil
Bring water to a boil and salt generously. Slowly add the polenta, whisking steadily in order to avoid lumps. Ad the herbs and adjust the salt. Cook for about 50 minutes, stirring frequently, until polenta is soft, very thick, and creamy. Pour into a greased pan (or two if necessary, I used a long foil loaf pan, as well as a 9×13 in loaf pan), and let cool until firm (preferably overnight). Cut into 2 in squares that are about an inch thick each. Preheat the oven to 400 F (~250 C). Lay polenta squares on a greased baking sheet and bake until slightly brown and very crispy, about 30-40 minutes
Rustic Roasted Garlic and Lentil Paté
- 1 head of garlic
- 1 medium onion, peeled
- Olive oil
- 1 1/2c brown or green lentils
- water to cover
- salt and pepper
Preheat oven to 400 F (~250 C). Cut off the top of the head of garlic, leaving a small amount of each clove exposed. Place on top of a sheet of foil and drizzle with about a tablespoon of olive oil. Wrap the garlic well with the foil, and place in the oven. Repeat with the onion (no need to slice off the top). Roast both the garlic and the onion until soft and caramelized, about 30-50 minutes. It is ok if one takes longer than the other. In the meantime, place the lentils in a medium-large pot with 3 1/2c of water. Simmer over medium-low heat until very soft, about 30 minutes. Do not salt the lentils until they are done cooking, or else they will take much longer to soften. When the lentils are done, add the garlic and chopped roasted onion (both should be similar to a paste, but the garlic you will only need to squeeze out of the skin, the onion might need a little more coaxing), plus 3 tbsp of olive oil. Mash together until mostly smooth (or throw it in a food processor, especially if you want it completely smooth), adding a little extra water if necessary. Taste for salt and adjust the seasonings.
White Wine Braised Broccoli
- 1 crown od broccoli, chopped
- 2 cloves of garlic, minced
- pinch of crushed red pepper
- 1 tbsp olive oil
- 1/4 c white wine
- juice of 1/2 a lemon
Place a large frying pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil and warm for a minute or two before adding the garlic and crushed red pepper. Sauté until just fragrant, and add the broccoli, wine wine, lemon juice and salt. Let simmer for about 5 minutes, until broccoli is cooked, but still a vibrant green.
Place a polenta square on a plate, add the broccoli, and then a large dollop of lentils. Serve and repeat.
The diversity of reactions to this dish were certainly amusing. All of my dining companions that night were certified meat eaters, and each claimed a different part of the meal as their favorite. Two of the boys were amazed by the heartiness of the lentils, and continued to exclaim their surprise that a meat-free meal could be so satisfying. Monica, my only other female companion that night, couldn’t get enough of the succulent, flavor-infused broccoli, and Steve (also our brilliant photographer for the evening) kept going back for more polenta. I couldn’t have asked for a better last night in Tel Aviv.