Saturday, November 14, 2009

"Pamela's Polenta," from Uneeda Rest Dinner

Today's post is a truly collaborative effort between Desdemona and myself - let's just call me "Robert," shall we (since that is in fact my name)? - in which the contextual setup is mine, and the recipe adaptation and cooking directions are hers. So now that we've cleared up the question of authorial voice, let's get on with tonight's dinner, which is the veganized interpretation of an old family favorite - oops, favourite. Various branches of my family in the Old Country (in my case, Canada) used to run summer hotels on Sparrow Lake, in Ontario’s cottage country. Most of them have disappeared now, but fifty or sixty years ago, there were a passle of them, serving plain but hearty country fare, offering a great spirit of camaraderie among the guests - many of them Americans who would come year after year from places as far afield as Ohio and Pennsylvania - and consisting of sometimes fairly basic accommodations (people of my father’s generation still remember the phenomenon of the Eaton’s department store catalog serving as toilet paper in the outhouses).

The most "Northern Gothic" of them all was Uneeda Rest (pictured above), run by a branch of my grandmother’s family, the Clipshams. The name comes from one of the hotel’s earliest guests, a salesman for the National Biscuit Company (Nabisco), one of whose products was called “Uneeda Biscuit” [Okay, sorry for sticking my oar in here, but this name never fails to remind me of the Red Queen in Through the Looking Glass, who continually presses unusually dry, tasteless morsels on poor Alice, insisting that it is exactly what she needs to cure the thirst incurred by a long run. Sorry, I'll stop now.- D.] The hotel closed in the early 1960s, but the building remains, a haunting ruin on the rocky north shore of the lake, a portion of which which one of my Clipsham cousins and his partner have renovated as their home. In 1999, these cousins (Robert and Pamela) threw a big party to celebrate the centenary of its opening, and plenty of clan members attended, wandering the faded, crumbling hallways and marveling at the ancient fixtures and appliances, all pretty much untouched since the closing.

At this point the reader could be forgiven for asking, "what possible connection could any of this have to polenta?" Well, my parents still see a fair bit of the Clipsham cousins, and it was the eponymous Pamela who devised this splendid and infinitely adaptable recipe, which my mother duly copied out and gave to me on a yellow recipe card (now more of an ochre color after years of loving kitchen stains). My mother’s letters, cards, diary entries, and recipes all share a highly characteristic style, rich in memory, anecdote, asides, and UPPER CASE INSTRUCTIONS for emphasis. She’s especially good at attributing recipes and recalling the specific occasions when she and Dad enjoyed a delicious meal in happy company. This is a classic of the genre, the “Uneeda Rest Dinner” in the title referring to the time they enjoyed it in a friendly corner of that starkly comfortable old lodge. Veganizing it proved an easy matter of substituting olive oil for the butter and vegan cheese for the mascarpone and parmesan called for in the original. We used the olives, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts recommended on that well-worn index card, but the beauty of this dish is that you can really use any topping you happen to fancy and/or have on hand (next time, we're planning on chopped portobellos, a ton of garlic and fresh basil, which can't possibly be bad). So head into the kitchen, see what's handy, then make a big pan and dig in, eh?

Pamela's Polenta
~ 6 cups vegetable broth or water
~ 1.5 coarse cornmeal (I use Bob's Red Mill polenta)
~ 2 tbsp. olive oil
~ 1 tbsp. dried basil
~ 1.5 cup grated Blue Sheese (optional, but highly recommended; if, however, you decide to skip it, add 1 tsp. salt to the broth/olive oil mixture along with the cornmeal)
~ 1/4 cup each: chopped black olives, sun-dried tomatoes, pine nuts
~ A few grinds of black pepper and some extra basil for garnish

~ Preheat oven to 400 degrees fahrenheit.
~ In a large pot, bring the vegetable broth and olive oil to a rapid boil.
~ Stir in the cornmeal and - according to Mary Lou's index card directions - "WHISK LIKE MAD." Cook for about 10 minutes, until thickened but still soft.
~ Add 1 cup of the grated Sheese (if using), stirring well to combine and make sure that it melts. Remove from heat and set aside.
~ Coat a 9 x 13" casserole or baking dish with cooking spray, and spoon in the polenta, smoothing the top with a rubber spatula.
~ Sprinkle the remaining 1/2 cup Sheese, olives, sun-dried tomatoes and pine nuts over the top of the polenta, finishing off with a few grinds of black pepper and a sprinkle of dried basil.
~ Cover with foil and bake at 400 degrees for 20 minutes.
~ Remove the foil and contune cooking another 15-20 minutes, until the polenta is setting up and the top is getting browned (not too browned!)
~ Allow to sit for about 10-15 minutes before slicing into squares and serving. (Be aware that this is really filling, and a little goes a long way. A green salad and a glass of red wine is all you need to make this A Proper Meal, although it's so delicious that you'll probably want seconds anyway!)


  1. I love the idea of adding olives and pinenuts here!

  2. This sounds like one of those reliable, flexible recipes that can be leaned upon as needed. Thanks!