Crispy Polenta and Vegie Stack with Fetta & Aioli

First of all, I would just like to say sorry for the hiatus from my blog for anyone who is following. Unfortunately my beautiful mother passed away a few weeks ago and her loss has been devastating. She did, however, love this blog which was inspired by her incredible strength, determination and radiant inner and outer beauty on her path to achieving perfect health.

After such a quick recipe last time I thought I would give everyone something that requires a little more effort, then I will go back to simple...I promise.

This recipe was inspired from a lovely dinner I had with my vego friend Sara at Vue restaurant in New Farm. Their version had a LOT of aioli and spun beetroot sugar which was delicious but also very naughty so I decided to have a go at making a healthier version.

I have never cooked polenta (corn grits) before and didn’t know how wonderful it is. Polenta is made from yellow corn which is packed with carotenoids. Carotenoids are powerful antioxidants that protect the cells of the body from damage caused by free radicals and help with the function of the immune system. Carotenoids need to be eaten with some healthy fat to be absorbed by the body.

You can do so much with polenta including setting and frying/grilling it like I have done in this recipe or you can add a bit more stock (or water) and make a lovely smooth accompaniment to some green veg, mushrooms or meat. Just stir through a little bit of butter and/or some parmesan cheese at the end for a lovely rich flavour.

It is really important to make sure you try and purchase organic polenta because organic corn is non-GMO (genetically modified) and does not contain any harmful pesticide residues, like non-organic corn does.

There are a number of steps to this recipe so it may be best suited to a weekend dinner party or romantic meal for two. You can turn the leftovers into a delicious salad by ripping up the polenta into bite sized pieces. I recommend that you prepare the polenta up until the frying point the day before if possible.

What you need to serve four lucky people:

For the polenta:
1 cup organic polenta (corn grits)
3 cups of vegetable stock (or water)
Handful of fetta or ½ cup grated parmesan cheese 

For the vegetables:
1 red capsicum, cut into 2 cm pieces
1 bunch asparagus spears wooden ends removed or other tasty crunchy veg (I used white butter string beans because I had some)
Large handful baby spinach leaves
1 medium sized beetroot
200g pumpkin, chopped into thin slices for roasting (I left the skin on and also roasted the seeds)
1 tsp agave or honey (optional)
Handful of fetta
1/2 tbsp grapeseed oil for roasting and for frying
Salt and pepper

For the Aioli Dressing*
1 egg yolk (at room temperature)
1 tsp Dijon mustard (at room temperature)
Up to 1/3 cup mild olive oil or grapeseed oil
Juice of half a lemon (at room temperature)
*(or if low on time, mix mayonnaise with some lemon juice)

Step 1: Make the polenta

Place the water into a saucepan and bring to the boil. Slowly pour in the polenta in a steady stream, whisking to prevent clumping. Continue to stir for a couple of minutes and reduce the heat to a simmer. Cover and cook over low heat for 20-30 minutes stirring occasionally, about every 5 minutes. If the polenta starts to clump add some more water and whisk to thin it out (about ½ a cup at a time). When the polenta is cooked (rub between fingers and make sure it is no longer gritty) and has thickened remove from heat, stir through the crumbled fetta and spoon into an oven proof dish to cool. Smooth the polenta over the top with the back of a spoon. A rectangular or square dish is best for setting the polenta - make it as thin a layer as possible.  Once it has cooled slightly cover and place in the fridge to set – this may take a few hours.

Step 2: Put the vegies in the oven

While the polenta is setting, pre-heat the oven to 180 degrees. Wash and scrub the beetroot and cover it in foil. Place in the oven for approximately 30-40 minutes. Once the beetroot has cooked take it out of the oven, cool slightly, peel and then cut into thin slices just before serving.

Toss the prepared capsicum, pumpkin and seeds in grapessed oil, agave and salt and pepper and place flat on an oven proof dish or tray. Place the tray in the oven for approximately 20-30 minutes or until the vegetables and nice and soft.

Step 3: Make the aioli

In a food processor or blender: blend yolk and mustard until a smooth paste has formed. While the motor is running slowly add the oil in a thin stream and continue blending until the aioli has thickened. Stir through the lemon juice. If the mixture is too thick you could add some water to thin it out.

By hand (like I did – in hindsight I should have used the blender :-/): add yolk and mustard to a bowl and then vigorously whisk until a paste has formed. Add one drop of oil at a time, whisking between each drop, until the aioli starts to thicken. Then you can add the olive oil in a steady stream while still whisking. Stir in the lemon juice. TIP from the movie Julie and Julia – submerge the bowl in some warm water for a couple of minutes before you start to heat it up, it should make it easier.

Step 3: Fry the polenta

While the vegies are in the oven, turn the polenta out onto a cutting board. It should be completely molded into the shape of the oven dish. Cut into thin squares (around 8 cm square). Heat a frying pan over medium-high heat and add some grapeseed oil. You may want to test a small amount of polenta to see how it cooks first. Cook each side for around 10 minutes until brown and crispy on the outside. Be careful not to move the polenta around or overcrowd the pan.

Once you have cooked all the polenta squares place them on some paper towel and cover to keep warm.

Step 4: Blanch asparagus

Place asparagus in a glass bowl and pour boiling water over them for approximately 20 seconds until bright green and the raw edge has been taken away. Drain and rinse in cold water to stop them cooking.

Step 5: Plate up
Place a square of polenta on each plate followed by ¼ of each of the vegetables in a stack. Top with some baby spinach leaves,1 tbsp of aioli, a sprinkle of fetta and the roasted pumpkin seeds.

Variation: add some crushed garlic to your aioli.

Make it naughty: add a tbsp of butter and parmesan cheese to your polenta to make it extra creamy.

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