Enlightened dishes for dark days

Cynthia Stone
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Are you as sick as I am of coming home from work in the dark? I crave sunlight and brightness and every day it seems like more of a chore to prepare a decent supper, especially if I have to shovel snow first.

Not that I’m complaining about winter’s late arrival this year; it’s just the usual itch for those extra hours of sun.

What you choose to cook won’t change the seasons, but a careful selection could have a positive effect on your outlook. Today I will share two recipes off my golden list — the dishes that transport me to a warmer place, never failing to cheer me up on a dark day

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We are so entrenched in our bread-potato-rice-pasta cycle we often forget how much of the world — especially the sunny countries — rely on corn for their carb sides. Polenta is one of those dishes that sends me to a better place, and with this flavourful topping, it is nothing but deep golden comfort on a dark evening.

If you’ve only seen this prepared by TV cooks then you probably think you can’t buy what you need here, or that you will be standing over the stove all day stirring a pot. Neither of those notions is true. I’ve had the instant — which, indeed, I haven’t found in the local grocery store — and I prefer the regular, which is really just plain old cornmeal cooked in liquid. You can find it in the supermarket or the bulk food store. Just don’t buy corn flour by mistake — you’re looking for the bright yellow, coarse-ground cornmeal.

This meal isn’t light in the dieting sense of the word, although if you use turkey sausage instead of regular, it isn’t at all bad. You can also reduce the amount of butter you stir into the polenta at the end, although this amount serves 6 people easily, and it sure adds to the taste and texture.

If you have leftover polenta, refrigerate it. For a spectacular makeover, cut it into slices — it will get quite firm — fry in a little olive oil and serve as a completely different side dish for another meal. One last thing: you can skip the onions, garlic and bay leaf — just bring the broth to a boil and whisk in the cornmeal. Oh, one other thing — watch that you don’t oversalt this; easy to do when using broth instead of water.


Polenta with sausages and mushrooms


1 medium onion, finely chopped

1 tsp. olive oil

1 clove garlic, minced

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth (or water)

1 bay leaf

1 cup cornmeal

3 tbsp. softened butter or margarine

1/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste

Sausage and mushroom topping:

6 to 8 Italian sausages cut into 1-inch chunks (turkey-based are fine)

1 medium red onion, thinly sliced

2 cups sliced fresh mushrooms — whatever kind you like

4 cloves garlic, minced

1 cup dry white wine (optional — you can substitute water with a squeeze of lemon juice)

1 sprig rosemary

salt and pepper to taste

In a heavy-bottomed pot, fry onion in olive oil over medium heat until it wilts — don’t brown it — then stir in garlic. Cook another minute, just until fragrant. Stir in broth and bring to a boil. Whisk in cornmeal and remove from heat; add bay leaf. Reduce heat to low and cook, stirring occasionally, until mixture is thick but still creamy — add a little water if it gets too thick to stir easily. Depending on the grind of the cornmeal, it will take 20 to 30 minutes. Some cook polenta a much shorter time, but I like it softer, not too grainy. Remove from heat, discard bay leaf, and add butter and Parmesan, stirring briskly until creamy. Taste, then add salt and pepper as needed. For the topping, brown sausages on all sides in a large heavy pan. Remove sausages and discard most of the fat. Fry onion and mushrooms in remaining fat until golden brown and mushrooms release their moisture and it evaporates. Add garlic and cook another minute. Stir in wine (or water with lemon juice). Return sausages to pot, cover and simmer until sausages are cooked through. Uncover and add rosemary sprig; simmer until most of the liquid has evaporated. Add salt and pepper as needed and discard rosemary. Spoon over polenta in bowls; sprinkle on some chopped fresh Italian flat-leaf parsley and freshly grated Parmesan if you like.


Meatball lettuce wraps

Just try and feel bad while you are eating these — go ahead and try. It will be impossible. The bright flavours and many textures make them both delicious and fun. Make this dish lighter and more nutritious by using ground chicken, brown rice and romaine lettuce. If you like, prepare with rice and meatballs that are lukewarm — makes for a great sensation in your mouth. This amount makes 16, which would be perfect as a main dish for 4 or as a starter for 8.

1 lb. ground chicken or lean ground pork

1 tbsp. soy sauce

1 thumb-sized piece fresh gingerroot, peeled and grated

1 clove garlic, minced

1/2 tsp. freshly ground black pepper

2 cups cooked and cooled long-grain white or brown rice

16 large lettuce leaves — iceberg or romaine

1 cup shredded carrots

4 green onions, thinly sliced

1 small red bell pepper, thinly sliced

6 fresh radishes, thinly sliced


Dipping Sauce:

1/3 cup soy sauce

3 tbsp. each lemon juice and orange juice

2 cloves garlic, minced

1 tsp. honey

few drops hot pepper sauce

Lightly mix together meat, soy sauce, gingerroot, garlic and pepper. Form into 3-inch elongated meatballs, 16 in all. Bake on a foil-lined baking sheet (cooking spray will help with cleanup) at 350 F for about 20 minutes or until cooked through, rotating them at the halfway point. Set aside to cool. Divide rice among lettuce leaves, spreading it out but not right to the edges. Lay a meatball on the rice and top with carrots, onions, red pepper, and radishes. Roll up the lettuce, tucking in the ends, spring-roll style. Whisk together dipping sauce ingredients and divide among 4 small serving dishes or cups.


Cynthia Stone is a writer, editor and teacher in St. John’s. Questions may be sent to her c/o The Telegram, P.O. Box 86, St. John’s, N.L, A1E 4N1.

Organizations: The Telegram

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