Today, I woke up to a cat. Not my cat. I don’t have a cat. I wish I had a cat. Or a dog. I’m not particular on that point. I just wish I had a pet. You may be wondering “Why is she making a big deal out of this? Cats, they’ve been around humans for millenia, haven’t they? It’s not like she came face-to-face with a dinosaur!” (That would have been some conversation starter, wouldn’t it? “Today, I met Barney. The real thing my dear! And you know, he’s more vivid mauve than purple, positively fuchsia!”)
Now that we’ve got that cleared up, on with the tale. As I was saying, on waking today, I came face-to-face with a cat. The sighting at close quarters was strange for a couple of reasons. First, I’d just woken from a strange dream involving Superman, the Incredible Hulk, the Cheshire cat and the Mad Hatter cooking together (I suspect this had something to do with watching too much TV and consuming some questionable leftover pie much too late last night, but I’m always glad when Johnny Depp shows up in my dream life, especially since he will never be there in the waking one…sigh). The last elusive image I had in my head was a cat grinning over a steaming pot, just before I woke from my weird shallows of slumber. I stumbled drowsily into the kitchen for a warm cuppa and rolled up the window shades to see a calm, grey tabby just sitting there, staring at me with perfect equanimity. As you can imagine, the feeling was surreal. Second, this would be an absolute first cat sighting for me in the environs of my apartment building. I’ve seen them sitting at windows as I pass by other places in the city. But, to my chagrin, these places are never around me. Not one person in the vicinity has ever had a cat as far as I can see. (I live around some pet-hating landlords.) Yet here was this one, an honest-to-goodness, fluffy grey cat with white socks, pale green-grey eyes and a lovely grey-white-black tail curled comfortably around her.
We stared at each other for a bit, motionless and silent. The cat kindly let me get a hold of my scattered senses; she seemed to have decided that any sudden moves might send me over the edge. Then slowly, deliberately, she lifted her paw in a half-greeting and then proceeded to give it a thorough washing. When she was done, she looked up and seemed a bit miffed that I still hadn’t moved. Her feline gestures seemed to suggest a slight impatience with the human. She got up gracefully, stretched in that mind-bogglingly flexible way that only cats can, and padded her way on silent paws to the edge of the lobby roof where she sat, giving me a reproachful look and a plaintive miaow. “Here I am,” she seemed to say, “out in the cold at your window and you won’t even offer me some milk! What would your mother say?” (My mother, while assiduously denying animals room and board, is nevertheless a famous feeder of stray cats. Famous. Ask any of our neighbours.) That look jolted me right out of my stupor. It was reminiscent of my nephew when he was younger and was told he couldn’t have any chocolate. Just so woeful. I looked about for some milk for her, but realised that if she had it, then me and Amey would have to do without. Telling my husband this early in the morning that he can’t have any milk (“because the cat asked for some”) might cause him to look about on how to get me committed. He’s a bear when he hasn’t had his morning coffee. So in the interest of my well-being, I tentatively offered her the last bit of the questionable pie.
She sniffed at it with suspicion, then proceeded to consume it with a rather browbeaten air, as will a guest when his hostess insists he try something he can’t stand, but is too polite to refuse. The deed done, she licked her whiskers clean and then proceeded to chew her tail in a gentle, abstracted fashion for a few minutes. Then, quite suddenly, with the air of the end of a performance, she stretched with an athlete’s commitment and took off, gracefully jumping onto a tree from the roof as she proceeded to make her way to the ground. Then, with a slow blink of those green eyes, she was gone, quite as suddenly as she had appeared into my life. No forwarding address, no P.O Box Number. Disconsolate, I could only hope she made her way home safely before the traffic picked up for the morning. This early morning event left me craving something warm, comforting and nourishing for a meal. With daydreams of having my own cat (or dog) someday, I thumbed through the books for inspiration. That’s when I spied this little recipe for polenta.
Polenta came into my culinary horizon fairly recently. There was a grilled version of polenta I ate as an appetizer at Greens restaurant that I fell head-over-heels in love with. The way you feel when you meet the one and wonder where they’ve been your entire life. Polenta is made rather easily from cornmeal and has a way of firming up as it cools down. This porridge is then sliced and browned on a skillet or toasted in the oven until its outsides crisp up a bit. It tastes of mushed up corn and is a blank palette for any number of flavours that you can throw at it. At Greens, I ate it with some mushrooms and it was one of the most delectable things I’ve ever eaten. This recipe was different. It called for the gentle poaching of ingredients in cream while you cooked, cooled and grilled the polenta. Some gorgonzola cheese and walnuts rounded out the flavours. A warming gem of a dish. It leaves you with the same contentment you get from having a warm and purring cat sitting on your lap.
Polenta and Walnuts with a Gorgonzola and herbed cream sauce
Adapted from Annie Sommerville’s Everyday Greens
Serves 3 to 4 as an entrée, maybe twice as many as an appetizer
For the polenta:
Water – 4 cups
Cornmeal – 1 cup
Olive oil – 2 tbsp
Parmesan cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
A quick two gratings of nutmeg and cardamom
Salt and pepper to taste
For the sauce:
Half-and half OR skimmed milk – 1 cup
Cream – 1 cup
Red onion – 1/2, sliced fine
Garlic cloves – 3 to 4, smashed with the flat of a knife, paper skins left on,
Bay leaf – 1
Fresh Thyme sprigs – 2
Fresh oregano sprig – 1
Sage – 3 leaves
Gorgonzola cheese – 3/4 cup, crumbled
Kasseri or Fontina cheese – 1/4 cup, grated
Walnut pieces – 1/2 cup, toasted
Basil leaves – a half-handful, chopped into a chiffonade
To make the polenta:
- In a saucepan, bring the water to a boil. Salt the water, then add the cornmeal. Lower the heat a bit to gently cook the polenta until it smoothly thickens, about 20 minutes or so.
- When the polenta is cooked, take it off the heat. Stir in the pepper, nutmeg, cardamom and olive oil.
- Pour into a 9″x15″ dish and allow it to cool. Upon cooling, slice the polenta into six or eight squares (which can be cut into triangles if the dish is to be an appetizer).
To make the sauce:
- Combine the cream, milk, onion, garlic and herbs in a saucepan over medium heat. Bring it to a boil and then lower the heat to simmer the sauce. Allow the sauce to reduce slightly, cooking for about 15 minutes.
- Strain the cream sauce, then return to the saucepan. Add half the Gorgonzola cheese to it, whisking it in to melt, over low heat. Season with salt and pepper as needed.
To assemble the dish:
- While the sauce is cooking, pour a little olive oil onto a skillet. Lightly crisp the polenta slices on the skillet until golden brown. Alternatively you could place the slices with some olive oil into a pre-heated oven at 325°F for 15-20 minutes.
- Place a couple of square (or a couple of triangles) on a plate . Sprinkle some Fontina (or Kasseri) and some of the reserved Gorgonzola on the slices, then ladle over some of the sauce. Sprinkle with some of the walnut pieces and a generous amount of basil. Enjoy right away!
I like lots of basil. So I didn’t didn’t bother with a chiffonade. Annie Sommerville suggests plating the polenta on a plate of arugula. I might have used it if I had it, or I would have used some watercress. Turned out I didn’t have any, so I just made up for the lack of it with lots of basil. (After the pictures, the dish went all green). The cooking of the sauce threw me a bit. I’ve never poached onions in cream before…to be frank, I’ve never poached onions in anything before. I’ve always browned them in oil or had them raw. The poaching here gently brings out the essence of the onion, herbs and the garlic. Sure, it all gets discarded but it has passed some of its soul onto the cream. It leaves behind a very luxurious, fragrant sauce that’s a real treat with the crisped polenta.
This is certainly a rich dish, but satisfying and very good with just the salad. As an appetizer, I would serve small individual portions to ensure that my guests save some room for the main course. A couple of pieces stacked together should do. The polenta can be made a day ahead, sliced and placed into the fridge. When required they can then be crisped on the skillet before assembly. One bite of this takes you to a warm, happy time. Mine I imagine, would be curled up on a sofa, with a book and my cat, if I had a cat.