Tuesday, July 28, 2009

Baked Tomato Polenta and Garlic Okra

Continuing this week's theme of cooked vegetarian meals, today I'm featuring yet another idea that lends itself to the addition of a side salad.

As I mentioned yesterday, I'm not a big fan of cold salads as my main meal of the day; they just don't satiate my appetite.

I prefer the internally-warming properties of a hot, cooked dish, even in the summer.

Actually, the meal ideas I'm featuring this week I made this time last year when living in the sweltering heat and humidity of Miami-- hence the addition of baked okra in today's dish.

Okra is everywhere in the south east of the U.S. and I learned to love it, even that weird slimy texture, so odd to my Australian palate.

You may be aware that in many hot, tropical climates the preference is often not flimsy salads, but hot, and spicy food. Think Indian, Thai, Cajun.

The spices are used intentionally to promote sweating, because moisture on the skin ultimately cools the body. I think we have the wrong idea completely, erring on the side of light salads and iced drinks in summer; they sure don't make you sweat!

The afternoon cooking smells coming from neighboring apartments in the complex where I lived in Miami spoke to the ritual of cooked evening meals. Often it was the grandmothers of immigrant South American families who were at home in the afternoon cooking.

Chances are the meals being made were not vegetarian though, since meat features front and center in many South American cuisines.

In Australia we're not that big on spicy food, even in the tropical zones of the country, but that's changing because of our immigrant Asian population. Think fabulous Thai cafes and restaurants.

In the rural area where I grew up, there were lots of Southern Italian immigrants and my mother would often shop at the local Italian warehouse-style grocer. So I was exposed to a Mediterranean diet early, which includes eat substantial hot meals all year round.

Today's dish is a combination of my learning to love okra and my love of Mediterranean-style cooking, and my preference for cooked, hot meals in summer:

Baked Tomato Polenta and Garlic Okra
1) Follow steps for cooking polenta. Pour onto an olive oiled, foiled-lined baking tray.
2) Meanwhile, saute a couple smashed cloves of garlic in a little olive oil. Add a chopped brown onion, and 4-6 ripe tomatoes. Turn heat to low and allow veggies to gently simmer in their own juices for about 15 mins.
3) At the half-way mark, add a big blob of tomato paste, a slurp of balsamic vinegar, and a pinch of sugar.
4) To finish sauce, season with salt and pepper and stir in chopped fresh herbs like basil or lemon basil or oregano or Italian parsley.
5) Slice fresh mozzarella and place pieces over cooked polenta, then over the cheese spoon the tomato and herb sauce, topping with your choice of olives (a hot spicy olive would add piquancy).
6) Wash fresh okra and place around the polenta. Top with whole cloves of unpeeled garlic. Drizzle with a little olive oil.
7) Place tray into a 350-degree oven and bake for about 30 mins or so.

To Serve: Spoon portions of the polenta and tomato onto plates, adding a side of the baked okra with whole garlic pieces. The garlic will easily slip out of the skin when gently squeezed, either eat it with your polenta or spread it on crackers or crusty bread.

A side or peppery arugula coated in a little olive oil and lemon juice would be a great accompaniment.

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