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Dressing Up the Leftovers

December 26, 1996|MARION CUNNINGHAM | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

I have been trying to devise a simple side dish to go with holiday leftovers, like turkey, chicken or ham, that are too good to end up in sandwiches. My solution is bell peppers filled with polenta.

The polenta is flavored with dried basil, fresh mushrooms and onions, and Monterey Jack, Gouda or Teleme cheese is melted on top. This "made-ahead" dish has been a pleasing answer to serving a quick meal, and it looks appetizing.

If you noticed, I call for dried instead of fresh basil. In California, we have become so used to using everything fresh that we never ask whether the dried form might be more compatible with some ingredients. One of the best cooks I know, Edna Lewis, once gave me a jar of thyme that she had grown and dried. She said it was much softer and better in many dishes than the assertive fresh thyme. This lesson has improved the flavor of my cooking.

You ought to compare fresh and dried herbs. Put very hot water into two small glass ramekins, stir a finely chopped fresh herb into one and the dried form into the other. Let stand for 10 minutes or more and taste the difference. I think you will be surprised.

A very good dessert in the holiday spirit is pumpkin custard with ginger snaps. Serve the custard warm with a little heavy cream poured over. The gingersnaps are wonderful, spicy and crinkly on top.

POLENTA-FILLED GREEN BELL PEPPERS

The easiest way of making polenta is to add it (dampened with cold water to help prevent lumping) to boiling water and stir for a few minutes until it starts to thicken, cover it and let it cook for about 10 or 15 minutes, stirring often. This is not the technique of the polenta purist, who might stir polenta for about 45 minutes so the grains lose their grittiness.

4 large green, yellow or red bell peppers

1 quart water

Salt to taste

2 to 3 teaspoons dried basil

1 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal

5 tablespoons butter

1/2 pound mushrooms

1 onion

1 1/2 cups grated Monterey Jack, Gouda, or Teleme cheese

Cut off tops and bottoms of peppers, then slice in half lengthwise and remove seeds. Blanch peppers in rapidly boiling lightly salted water until barely soft, about 2 minutes. Remove to 9-inch square baking dish.

Bring water and teaspoon salt to boil in medium pot. Sprinkle in dried basil. Mix polenta with just enough cold water to dampen and add to boiling water. Stir to mix well, about 2 minutes. Reduce heat to bare simmer, cover pot and cook until thickened, 10 to 15 minutes.

Remove stems from mushrooms and cut caps in large pieces. Chop onion coarsely. Melt butter in skillet over medium heat. Swirl pan so butter covers bottom. Add mushrooms and onion and cook over medium heat until both are soft but not browned. Remove from heat and season to taste.

Fold mushrooms and onion into polenta and then spoon generous amounts of polenta mixture into pepper halves, rounding tops. Sprinkle with grated cheese and cover and refrigerate until needed, up to 3 days.

Bake at 350 degrees until heated through and cheese is melted, about 30 minutes.

Makes 4 servings.

Each serving contains about:

452 calories; 967 mg sodium; 76 mg cholesterol; 28 grams fat; 36 grams carbohydrates; 15 grams protein; 1.08 grams fiber.

PUMPKIN CUSTARD

2 cups pumpkin puree, either fresh or canned

3 eggs

1 1/2 cups evaporated milk or whipping cream

3/4 cup brown sugar, packed

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 1/2 teaspoons groundcinnamon

1 teaspoon ground ginger

1/2 teaspoon groundnutmeg

1/4 teaspoon ground cloves

1/4 teaspoon ground allspice

Beat together pumpkin and eggs in large bowl. Mix in evaporated milk and sugar, then salt, cinnamon, ginger, nutmeg, cloves and allspice. Beat until smooth.

Spoon mixture into 8 (3/4-cup) oven-proof custard cups. Place custard cups in baking pan large enough to hold all of them. Place baking dish on middle oven rack and add about 1 inch very hot water. Bake at 350 degrees until knife inserted in center comes out almost clean, 20 to 30 minutes. Cool and refrigerate if not serving immediately.

Makes 8 servings.

Each serving contains about:

256 calories; 195 mg sodium; 141 mg cholesterol; 19 grams fat; 20 grams carbohydrates; 4 grams protein; 1.01 grams fiber.

GINGERSNAPS

This makes a thin, crisp, spicy, crinkly gingersnap, easily made by hand or in the food processor.

3/4 cup shortening

1 cup sugar, plus extra for dusting cookies

1 egg

1/4 cup molasses

2 cups flour

2 teaspoons baking soda

1/2 teaspoon salt

1 tablespoon ground ginger

1 teaspoon ground cinnamon

Preheat the oven to 350 degrees and grease some baking sheets.

Beat shortening and 1 cup sugar until light. Add egg and beat until fluffy. Beat in molasses.

Toss together flour, baking soda, salt, ginger and cinnamon and stir into shortening mixture, mixing until smooth.

Roll walnut-sized bits of dough into balls, then roll in sugar. Place about 2 inches apart on lightly greased baking sheets and bake at 350 degrees until cookies have spread and tops have cracked, 10 to 12 minutes. Remove to rack to cool.

Makes about 3 1/2 dozen cookies.

Each cookie contains about:

79 calories; 31 mg sodium; 5 mg cholesterol; 4 grams fat; 10 grams carbohydrates; 1 gram protein; 0.02 gram fiber.

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