Two summers ago I gave up meat for awhile. A number of influences came together to make me question whether or not I wanted to continue eating it. I am very bothered by the conditions in industrial farms and I worry about the quality and safety of the meat. Also, I had some health reasons for giving it up, so I cut it out of my diet all together.
In the end, I went about 6 months completely meat free before I started to introduce it back into our diet. But looking back on it now, I don’t feel like a failed vegetarian, (although some may view me that way). This period was a transition for me and it has irrevocably changed the way I plan our meals.
I have to admit, making the transition to a vegetarian diet was not easy for a life long meat eater. I often felt like my meals were not totally satisfying, especially at dinner time. I know that feeling just came from a lifetime of habit but it was not easy to break.
But what troubled me most was whether or not I was adequately meeting my two young daughters’ nutritional needs. Being a vegetarian requires more thoughtful planning of your meals than being an omnivore. You have to know the proper combinations of ingredients to meet all you nutritional needs (particularly vitamin B12, protein and iron). These food combinations were not second nature to me, so I second guessed myself, often.
I have always enjoyed meat but I know nothing impacts our health and the environment like our North American approach to meat consumption. Meat is the main event in almost every meal. We eat way more protein than we need, which is not good for us, the animals or the environment.
So now, I buy organic or traditionally raised meat and I buy less. I try to view it as an accompaniment to the meal and not always as the main event. Sure, we have roast chicken, but we eat smaller portions of it. Or I make a dish like my Tuscan stew and I use only two sausages for my entire family, so that it is a flavouring and not the main ingredient.
But most importantly, I cook a vegetarian meal at least two or three times a week. I now have a good repertoire of vegetarian meals that I find satisfying and filling and I am always on the look out for new ones.
A few weeks ago I came across an interesting dish that I thought would be a really nice addition to a vegetarian stew. I found it on the Cooking Books site while surfing the net and I made it soon after.
I am not great at making polenta. I don't know why but it seems to be one of those things I get wrong nearly every time I make it. This time was no exception. It was way too loose when I poured it in my baking dish, but the good news is polenta is very forgiving. So despite the fact that it did not originally hold together the way it was supposed to, once it cooled it served up beautifully. I added fresh thyme to the polenta and I added extra cheese, because you should always add extra cheese, right? It is very good on its own, but it is also the perfect base for a rich stew.
Balsamic Shallot and Polenta Cake
adapted from Cooking Books
for the shallots:
9 large shallots, peeled and halved
2 cloves garlic, minced
1 tablespoon olive oil
1/4 cup balsamic vinegar, divided
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
salt and pepper to taste
Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. When you are preparing your shallots keep the root end attached so that they hold together during the cooking process. Heat the oil in a large oven proof pan over medium-high heat. Sauté the shallots until they are caramelized on all sides, about 10 minutes. Add the garlic and sauté for another minute more. Add the thyme and two tablespoons of the vinegar. The vinegar will bubble up, so be careful. Toss the onions to coat them well and season to taste with salt and pepper.
Remove the pan from the heat and arrange the shallots in a single layer over the bottom of the pan. Drizzle the last two tablespoons of balsamic vinegar over the shallots. Set aside while you make the polenta.
for the polenta:
1 1/2 cups polenta or course corn meal
5 cups water
1 cup grated gruyere cheese
1/2 cup grated parmesan
2 teaspoons fresh thyme
¾ teaspoon salt
In a large pan over high heat bring your water to a boil. Slowly pour the polenta into the boiling water, whisking constantly to prevent lumps. Add the salt. Continue to stir and turn the heat down to medium low and allow the polenta to simmer until very thick but still pourable, about 10 minutes.
When the polenta is done add the cheeses and stir to combine. Pour over the shallots and smooth with a spatula to ensure all of the onions are covered. Bake for 20 minutes
When the top of the polenta is browned, remove form the oven and let sit for a couple of minutes before inverting onto a serving plate. Cool and cut into slices. Serve alone, with a salad or as the base of a stew.
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