Polenta cake with tomatoes and bleu cheese (6 servings)

When it comes to starches, rice and pasta often seem to be the most versatile. They can be paired with so many things, from silky sauces to roasted vegetables. However, polenta deserves its time in the spotlight, too!

This particular rendition pairs dense, herb-flecked, pleasantly grainy polenta with sweet tomatoes and pungent bleu cheese. I was lucky enough to pick up some local goat-milk Blue Chevrolait, a gorgeously buttery creation from Prodigal Farm in Rougemont. Its rich umami notes stole the show without drowning out the other flavors. Cut with a drizzle of honey, it was the perfect topping for this dish.

You will need:

  • 2 Tbsp extra-virgin olive oil, divided
  • 4 cups water
  • 1 1/3 cups yellow cornmeal
  • 1 1/4 tsp salt
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1/2 cup slivered fresh basil leaves
  • 2 cups chopped tomatoes
  • 3/4 cups crumbled bleu cheese
  • 1 tsp honey

Steps:

  1. Grease a square cake or baking pan with one tablespoon of the oil and set aside. Preheat the oven to 450°.
  2. Combine the water, cornmeal, and salt in a large saucepan. Bring to a boil over medium-high heat, whisking as close to constantly as your little forearms can handle. (Reaching boiling stage ALWAYS takes longer than I think it will!)
  3. Once the mixture starts to bubble, lower the heat to medium-low. Whisk constantly for a few more minutes, or until the mixture is thick enough to start pulling away from the sides of the pan. (My clue that I'm almost done is that I can't hold the whisk like a pencil anymore.) Fold in the remaining tablespoon of the olive oil, the garlic, and the basil.
  4. Pour the polenta mixture into the prepared pan. Top with the tomatoes and cheese. Bake for 15-20 minutes, or until the cheese is melted and bubbling.
  5. Remove from oven and allow it to set for a few minutes. Lightly drizzle the pan with honey, and then cut the polenta into rectangles. Serve with a lightly-dressed salad and you're good to go!

My version of the recipe was based on this Epicurious offering.

Pizza quinoa bowls (5-6 servings)

Every home cook should have a handful of go-to recipes that are quick and easy to put together on a busy night. Some of my reliable favorites include rice and beans, crispy tofu wraps, black bean and toasted corn tacos, mini pizzas, and, more recently, pizza quinoa from GirlMakesFood. Cheesy, tangy, and hearty, it's comforting in its simplicity and powerful in its nutritional content. Plus, it all comes together in about 30 minutes! I first started making this recipe about three years ago, but I've recently tweaked it to fit the bowl format that's oh so trendy right now. You can easily customize it to include your favorite pizza toppings. I want to try it with vegetarian sausage and roasted garlic next time! And if I can fix this the night before school starts when my teacher brain is in a million places simultaneously, you can have it on your table this week for sure!

Click here for a printable recipe.

You will need:

  • 1 1/2 cups dry quinoa
  • 3 cups water or broth
  • 2 cups spaghetti, marinara, or pizza sauce 
  • 1/2 cup shredded or crumbled cheese cheese (I used crumbled goat cheese)
  • your favorite pizza toppings (We used chopped cherry tomatoes and bell pepper, sautéed mushrooms and asparagus, and jarred grilled artichokes)
  • 1/4 cup grated parmesan
  • Italian herb blend 

Steps:

  1. Once the quinoa has been rinsed and rubbed to remove its bitter coating, add it to a medium stockpot, along with the water or broth. Bring the quinoa to a boil, reduce to low, and simmer with the lid on for 15-20 minutes, or until the water has been absorbed.
  2. Fold in the sauce and cheese. If you used water to cook the quinoa, you might need to add a little salt to give it some flavor, but keep in mind that your toppings might be salty, so don't overload it. Spoon the quinoa into bowls.
  3. Load up each bowl with your toppings of choice. Sprinkle with parmesan and Italian herbs and serve.

I'd love to try this with leftover roasted vegetables folded in with the quinoa. This recipe is a great excuse to use up ingredients from your fridge or garden!

Spiced Green Lentils With Pomegranate, Sweet Potato, and Pistachios (4-6 servings) and Asheville Wrap-Up

Bryan and I recently spent a long weekend in Asheville as an early celebration our anniversary. (Ten years next month! Where did the time go?!) If you're vegetarian and live within reasonable distance of this funky mountain town, you MUST go. Asheville is a haven for vegans and vegetarians. Nearly every restaurant worth mentioning (and there are dozens in Asheville) serve creative, flavorful meatless options, and the city boasts several vegetarian eateries, including the Laughing Seed and the all-vegan Plant.

The Laughing Seed's barbecue platter: vegan chipotle beans, cornbread muffin, tangy Southern slaw, and BBQ jackfruit

We always eat well in Asheville. Each time we go, we revisit some old favorites (like Laughing Seed) and add in a few new places. We tried a couple new-to-us restaurants this time around, including Bhramari Brewhouse, Chai Pani, and Zambra.

Pillowy veggie samosas, crispy kale pakoras, and salty-limey okra fries from Chai Pani

We spent a cozy evening at Zambra over tapas for our anniversary celebration, taking in the fresh air from our table in the breezeway. Zambra serves beautifully-plated, unique tapas options and offers an extensive wine list.

My two generous glasses of velvety-smooth Tempranillo suggested top notes of "I forget which tapas we ordered" with lingering hints of "but I know they were all amazing."

Of course, there's much more to do in and around Asheville besides just eat. We drove to nearby Bryson City to hop a train on the Great Smoky Mountain Railroad, where our beautifully-restored 1942 steam engine chugga-chugged us past stunning views of Fontana Lake and the Nantahala and Tennessee Rivers.

The unique color of the lake comes from the residue of copper mines!

We listened to spooky tales of Asheville's sordid history and even used ghost-hunting equipment to detect spectral activity (no luck) on the Downtown Spirits Tour. We browsed the eclectic downtown shops for hours, gazing at the local art in display windows and listening to street musicians as we passed by. We spent a cacophonous afternoon at the Asheville Pinball Museum, where we played vintage classics (Sadly, my favorite, Gottlieb's Haunted House, was sold since our last visit) and brand-new iterations (Ghostbusters!) alike.

If you're a pinball fan, the admission price is about the best $15 you'll ever spend.

But the place that always, always feels like home in Asheville is Malaprop's. Bryan and I have been to more than our fair share of bookstores -- believe me -- but Malaprop's is our favorite by far. It sounds silly to call a bookstore "book-focused," but if you've visited enough of them, you know that some bookstores emphasize collectibles from various trending fandoms while others spotlight cozy seating but offer few reading choices. Malaprop's, however, wants to attract readers who read. It's Heaven, and it makes my bibliophilic heart so, so happy.

I took home five new books, including Carla Snyder's One Pan, Two Plates: Vegetarian Suppers, which I've already cooked from twice. The concept is simple: Use one cooking vessel to serve up a flavorful dinner for two people. I'm already finding that each serving is pretty big, however. Both times I've cooked from this book, I doubled the recipe so we'd have leftovers for lunch the next day, only to find I had leftovers for two lunches for both of us. But hey, when the food is this good, I can't argue. The dish I'm featuring in this post (you know, when I'm done rambling about trains and pinball and books and ghosts) is complex; the lentils are earthy and peppery, the spices add aromatic interest, and the garnishes of pistachios, chèvre, and mint bring in a layer of bright, tangy, sweetness. It's perfect, really!

Hello, beautiful.

Spiced Green Lentils With Pomegranate, Sweet Potato, and Pistachios (4-6 servings)

Click here for a printable recipe.

You will need:

  • 1/4 cup sunflower or canola oil
  • 2 tsp ground coriander
  • 2 tsp ground cumin
  • A generous pinch of ground cloves
  • 2 small onions, chopped (or an equivalent of dried minced onion if you've got an angry IBS belly like I have)
  • 2 garlic cloves, minced
  • 1 large sweet potato, peeled and cut into 1/2-inch pieces
  • salt and pepper
  • 1 1/2 cups green lentils, picked through and rinsed
  • 3 1/2 cups vegetable broth
  • 1 lemon
  • 1/3 cup roasted pistachios, coarsely chopped
  • 2-3 oz goat cheese, crumbled
  • 1/3 cup pomegranate seeds
  • 2 Tbsp chopped flat-leaf parsley
  • 2 Tbsp chopped mint leaves

Steps:

  1. Heat a 12-inch skillet over medium-high heat and add the oil. When the oil shimmers, add in the coriander, cumin, cloves, onion, garlic, and sweet potato, plus 1/2 tsp salt and some ground black pepper. Sauté until the onion starts to soften and the garlic is fragrant -- about 3 minutes. 
  2. Add the lentils and broth and allow the mixture to come to a soft boil. Turn the heat to low, cover, and simmer until the lentils and vegetables are tender and the liquid has been absorbed -- about 30 minutes. (Follow the author's advice and start checking after 15 minutes to see if the mixture needs more broth. I ended up needing to add a quarter cup after 25 minutes because the lentils were still a bit crunchy.) Remove from heat.
  3. Cut the lemon in half and squeeze the juice (Watch those seeds!) over the mixture. Then add in the chopped pistachios. Add more salt if needed, although if your broth is salty or the pistachios are heavily salted, you might not need to do so.
  4. Scoop each serving into a bowl, and then top each bowl with a tablespoon or so of the pomegranate seeds and goat cheese, plus a sprinkling of parsley and mint. This can be served hot or at room temperature.

As I said, I doubled the original recipe, although I kept the garnishes at almost the original measurements. I think they work well as an accent but don't need to dominate the dish. The only other change I made was to swap out the original olive oil for sunflower, as olive oil tends to burn on my stove at higher temps. Look at the gorgeous, gorgeous colors of this dish!

The Allison (one sandwich)

I have a couple sets of discussion questions that I use once a week with my high-schoolers as a warm-up exercise. My kids affectionately call Wednesday "cube day," and they get a lot out of sharing their ideas and listening to their classmates' opinions. Sometimes though, they get frustrated with me. I'm the one who always has follow-up questions about the question before I can even answer the question.

For example, this past week, a student pulled the card that asked, "What would you eat for your last meal?" My question was, "But why is it my last meal?" Of course, the card provides no further information, so my student shrugged and said, "I don't know. It just is." Obviously, the reason I'm eating one final meal would heavily sway my choice of victuals. Am I dying? Then it'll probably be a last-hurrah indulgent sort of meal. Am I on death row? And then following that, am I actually guilty? If I'm guilty, I'm probably too mournful to eat much. If I'm innocent, then I'm swallowing whole popcorn kernels to see what happens in the electric chair. Is this my last meal because a meteorite is about to hit Earth? Then I'll probably go with whatever the hell I can find in the pantry or whatever is leftover in the fridge. As much as I like to cook, I'm pretty sure my pre-Apocalyptic frame of mind will not include gourmet cooking. Let's get real here.

So by the time I run through my follow-up questions, my students are usually glassy-eyed as they fight off yawns. For that particular question, I never even arrived at an answer because there were too many variables to allow me to land on a solid decision. I left it at, "I guess it depends," and we moved on to the next card.

This afternoon, however, I realized what my real answer would be: The Allison. The Allison was off-handedly mentioned in a previous post before it was named. Originally inspired by a sandwich from Lititz, Pennsylvania's adorably cozy Tomato Pie Cafe, I've since named my version after my good friend Allison, who once sang its praises (possibly literally -- I don't remember).

So yes, the Allison would be my last meal. It feels more sinful than it is, it's comforting, and it's just unusual enough to be special. As I've said before, I love unexpected flavor combinations, and this sandwich's amalgam of brie, raspberry jam, sprouts, and egg certainly fits the bill. My philosophy of flavor pairings is like my feelings about introducing two friends from different areas of your life at a party: As long as you've got a mutual connection in between, everything will be fine. Here, raspberry jam doesn't seem like it would match well with eggs, but raspberry jam adores brie, and brie jives with eggs, so everybody is happy. And sprouts are the peppery, bold confetti that gets the party going!

Okay, so I probably haven't seen confetti at a party since I was about ten. And maybe I haven't been to many parties at all lately. Fine! I'll be in the corner eating my sandwich.

Click here for a printable version.

You will need:

  • Two slices of multigrain bread (I recommend sunflower bread)
  • Raspberry jam (preferably with seeds)
  • Sliced brie cheese
  • Two eggs
  • Microgreens (I love using a mixture of sprouts)

Steps:

  1. Toast the bread.
  2. Meanwhile, cook the eggs however you prefer. (I love mine scrambled and fluffy.)
  3. When the bread is toasted, spread the jam on one side and lay the brie on the other. Place the eggs on top of the brie, pile the sprouts on top of the eggs, and then put the jammy toast on top. 

This sandwich tastes best if you assemble it when everything is hot and eat it straight away. (Just keep a look out for that meteorite.)

 

Autumn farro salad with maple vinaigrette (2+ servings)

Have you tried farro? Made from hulled grains of three ancient forms of wheat, cooked farro remains chewy and soaks up flavors easily. It provides a solid dose of protein and fiber and can stand in for quinoa or rice in many dishes. Whole-grain farro requires pre-soaking and a longer cook time, but semi-pearled farro cooks up in about the same time as rice. It can be cooked in the same way as pasta -- in boiling water until al dente and then drained. Follow package directions for the best results.

This particular version was based on a recipe from The Gluten-Free Goddess, although using farro instead of quinoa took away its gluten-free status! I wanted a firm, nutty grain that could stand up to the chilly-weather flavors of the other ingredients. Here's my spin on her recipe:

Click here for a printable recipe.

You will need:

  • 1 cup dry farro, cooked in broth and cooled
  • About a cup of baby spinach or other baby greens, roughly chopped
  • 1 large pear or apple, cut into bite-sized pieces
  • A handful of dried cranberries (If you can find the orange-flavored variety, they're especially delicious here!)
  • 1/4 cup toasted chopped pecans
  • 2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil
  • 1 Tbsp rice vinegar (or something similarly mild)
  • 1 tsp pure maple syrup
  • salt and pepper

Steps:

  1. Place the farro, greens, fruit, and pecans in a large serving bowl.
  2. Add the oil, vinegar, maple syrup, and salt and pepper to taste to a jar with a lid. Cover and shake to combine.
  3. Pour the dressing over the farro mixture and toss gently to combine. Serve at room temperature as a main dish or a side salad.

This goes well with pita chips, especially Trader Joe's cranberry and pumpkin seed version!