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Dress Up a Staple

March 19, 1997|CHARITY FERREIRA | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Peasant foods have a way of turning up on the trendiest restaurant menus. This is probably a reflection of our growing interest in vegetable- and grain-based diets. Another reason for the popularity of hearty, simple dishes is that they can be dressed up with bold, assertive, even wildly extravagant additions. Consider the many things chefs do with polenta.

Most recipes for polenta require continuous stirring, making it difficult, if not impossible, to use in a quickly prepared meal. But I've found that polenta doesn't suffer from a little neglect, and although it takes between 20 and 30 minutes to cook completely, as long as it gets 3 or 4 vigorous stirrings, you are free to do other tasks.

Slightly charred red bell peppers and fresh goat cheese stirred into rosemary-scented soft polenta give it a tangy sweetness that contrasts nicely with its creamy texture. If you have time, crush some black peppercorns with the side of a knife to sprinkle on top.

Menu (30 Minutes or Less)

Polenta With Pan-Charred Peppers and Goat Cheese

Baby Green Salad

Bread

Countdown

30 minutes before: Bring water to boil.

25 minutes before: Whisk in polenta, lower to simmer and cover.

20 minutes before: Cut bell peppers. Stir polenta.

15 minutes before: Cook bell peppers. Stir polenta.

10 minutes before: Mix vinaigrette; chop rosemary. Stir polenta; toss salad.

5 minutes before: Taste polenta for doneness; stir in butter and rosemary; assemble.

INGREDIENTS

SHOPPING LIST

2 red bell peppers

1 loaf crusty bread

1/4 pound package goat cheese

12 to 14 ounces mixed baby greens

1 pound medium- or coarse-ground polenta

1 bunch fresh rosemary

STAPLES

Balsamic vinegar

Butter

Olive oil

Black peppercorns

Salt

POLENTA WITH PAN-CHARRED PEPPERS AND GOAT CHEESE (VEGETARIAN)

Salt

Water

1 1/2 cups medium- or coarse-ground polenta

2 teaspoons olive oil

2 red bell peppers, cut into small strips or pieces

3 tablespoons butter

2 tablespoons chopped rosemary

2 ounces goat cheese

Freshly ground black pepper

2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar

Add salt to taste to 7 cups water in large pot and bring to boil. Pour polenta into water in slow, steady stream, whisking continuously. Lower heat, cover and simmer until texture is smooth, rather than grainy, 20 to 25 minutes. Remove lid and give polenta vigorous whisking several times as it cooks.

While polenta is cooking, heat olive oil in skillet until it smokes. Add bell pepper strips and cook, stirring once or twice, until skins are slightly charred and peppers are just barely soft, 3 to 5 minutes.

Stir butter and chopped rosemary into just-cooked polenta. Pour polenta into shallow bowls and distribute bell peppers and goat cheese over top. Sprinkle with black pepper to taste and drizzle with balsamic vinegar.

4 servings. Each serving:

312 calories; 304 mg sodium; 39 mg cholesterol; 16 grams fat; 38 grams carbohydrates; 7 grams protein; 1.06 grams fiber.

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Short Cuts

*Rather than roasting whole bell peppers and peeling their skins--a time-consuming process--cut bell peppers into strips and char them directly in a skillet, skins and all.

*Pre-washed, mixed baby salad greens are sold by the pound in the produce sections of many grocery stores. Many of these mixes have a nice blend of sweet and bitter greens and are ready to be dressed and served.

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Kitchen Tips

*To make a basic salad vinaigrette, use 1 teaspoon wine vinegar for every 1 tablespoon good oil (fresh and clean at least, richly fruity at best), and beat them together using a fork. Add a dash of salt and a slight grinding of black pepper. Beat again until the oil and vinegar are thoroughly mixed. Add half the vinaigrette dressing to dry greens (dressing will not stick to wet lettuce), turning the greens to coat as many leaves as possible. Slowly add as much of the remaining vinaigrette as needed, tossing all the while.

*The size of the grain used for making polenta affects mainly the texture. Medium- or coarse-grind work equally well. In general, the bigger the grain, the looser and more pudding-like the final product. Finer grains give a firmer and more compact polenta.

*

Cyclamen bowl and plate, above right, from Gelson's Coffee Bar in Tarzana.

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