Ok, let’s get the humour about Northern Irish and Scottish people not quite understanding salad out of the way. This one does contain fried things, but what do you think those lovely croutons in your Caesar salad are, huh? So let’s carry on with what is really a perfect early autumn lunch instead and celebrate crispy crunchy fried things in style.
This salad is built round polenta which is the other Italian staple carbohydrate in town. Made from cornmeal cooked into a thick porridge, British people have never quite taken it to their hearts like they have with pasta. This is partly because we have little connection with eating corn in this country beyond the odd tin of Green Giant and partly because polenta can be quite bland.
In fact, the first time I had polenta as a child, I was actually quite repelled by its blandness. Almost offensive in its nothingness, it kept me away from eating it for years. Then I realised you should never ever buy precooked polenta and that like all the best foods on earth, it needs a liberal hand with the butter. Now I’m a regular polenta eater.
However, I’m not an authentic polenta maker. Firstly I usually make it in the slow cooker rather than stand around stirring slowly to make it smooth and creamy the old fashioned and energetic way and secondly, I add stock to mine. This is near sacrilege to a friend whose family are Northern Italian, but it’s the only way I can add enough flavour without bunging an entire block of Kerrygold in there and missing the point of peasant food.
I tend to make a big batch of polenta and eat half like a thick porridge to soak up ragus or stews (also usually done in the slow cooker) and then allow the other half to cool into blocks and eat it almost like a springier version of cornbread. This cooled polenta is especially good cubed and fried until crispy round the edges. Here I’ve scattered it over a salad but it works well as a breakfast dish with scrambled eggs and tomatoes too for a filling and gluten free start to the day.
Crispy Polenta, Caper and Fig Salad (serves 2 as a main meal)
- 250g cooked polenta (see below)
- 75ml olive oil
- 1 romaine lettuce, finely shredded
- 1 head broccoli, lightly blanched
- 2 fresh figs, quartered
- 2 tablespoons capers
- 1 tablespoon fig relish (see page 133 of Recipes from Brixton Village)
- 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar
- 25g parmesan, shaved
- 1 red chilli, chopped
Slow Cooker Polenta (serves 4)
- 175g coarse cornmeal
- 850ml boiling water or stock
- salt and pepper
- 50g butter
- 50g parmesan (optional)
Start with your slow cooker polenta. I make this the day before and have the salad as a leftovers based lunch. Polenta is often labelled ‘coarse cornmeal’ as well which tends to have the effect of reducing the price by at least half in supermarkets. Look out for Dunn’s River in the red bags in the World Foods section rather than someone like Merchant Gourmet in the Italian aisle.
Pour the dry cornmeal into the slow cooker crock and add the water or stock. Make sure it is as close to boiling as possible. I usually use chicken stock, but veg stock would be lovely here too. Season it all well with salt and pepper and then add a bit more to counteract any blandness.
Put the lid on the slow cooker. Cook the polenta on low for 6-7 hours or high for 3-4. The polenta will thickened and become creamy textured after this time, but don’t be surprised if there is a little water on top of it all and it looks slightly separated when you take the lid off. This is quite normal and all it needs is a good stir. Add the butter and parmesan at this stage.
Serve now if using with a stew (I’ve got a pig cheek number to share with you soon) or pour into a well lined baking tray and smooth the top down evenly. Allow to set overnight before cutting into 3cm cubes the next day.
Heat a frying pan with the olive oil and make sure it gets almost spitting hot before dropping a few of the polenta cubes in at a time. They have an annoying tendency to stick if you don’t heat the oil well, but be careful as it will make a bit of a mess now as they fry. The cubes need about 2 minutes either side, flipping half way. Drain them onto kitchen roll and repeat until they are all cooked.
Prepare your broccoli by steaming it for a few minutes. I usually do this in a covered bowl in the microwave as I don’t have a steamer. Allow to cool slightly and set aside. Finely shred your lettuce and place in a large salad bowl. Toss the broccoli in. Halve the figs and carefully peel the purply green skin back to expose just the white pith and jewel like seeds. Quarter them and set aside.
Make the dressing by placing a heaped tablespoon of the fig relish into a jam jar and adding the balsamic vinegar. Screw the lid on and shake well until you have a pouring consistency. You might need to add a drop or two of water to it as well. If you don’t have any fig relish, just add a little dash of brown sugar to the balsamic vinegar instead.
Dress the lettuce and broccoli with the figgy dressing and add the quartered figs. Drop the drained capers into the remaining hot oil and fry for 2 minutes until they are crispy and sizzling. Scatter them and the still hot polenta croutons over the salad. Garnish with the chopped red chilli and parmesan shavings and eat promptly. This makes an excellent alternative to the ubiquitous Caesar salad and will convert anyone to polenta in no time.