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Veggie Sunday Dinner: Parmesan Polenta & Eggplant Caponata

Inspired in part by a long-ago Martha recipe for a layered eggplant & polenta casserole that’s long been one of my go-to veggie recipes, I came up with this really rather tasty update for Sunday dinner with one of most militantly vegetarian friends (and his long-suffering BF). Happily, it was quite the hit and not one of us felt ill used by the lack of meat.

The polenta–homemade rather than from a tube as Martha dictates (which might suggest that Ms. Stewart’s standards are slipping)–gets a flavorful boost with parmesan cheese and, after being cut into half-moons, emerges from a quick saute crispy-edged yet creamy on the inside. Arranged in a pinwheel pattern and paired with a brightly tangy caponata, it makes for a handsome meat-free meal. Indeed, if one were just to serve the caponata–and the mixture of meaty eggplant enlivened with capers, tomato, and a touch of balsamic vinegar is definitely a worthy dish on it own–you’d even keep the vegans happy.

Parmesan Polenta & Eggplant Caponata
Serves 4

Parmesan Polenta
2 c water
1 c whole milk or cream
1 c cornmeal
1 tsp salt
1 tsp freshly ground black pepper
1 oz grated Parmesan

Lightly grease two tall water glasses with rather straight sides and set by the stove. Bring the water and milk to a rolling boil over high heat. Whisking madly with one hand, gradually pour in the cornmeal with the other hand. Once it’s evenly incorporated, reduce the heat to medium and switch from whisk to heatproof spatula. Cook, stirring, for about 5 minutes (check package for cooking times–it will depend on how coarse the cornmeal is ground). Add salt, pepper, and grated cheese, stirring until completely incorporated. Carefully divide the polenta between the greased water glasses and let sit at least an hour or until firm enough to slice. Set aside while making the caponata.

Eggplant Caponata
2 tbs olive oil 3 medium onions
3 cloves garlic
2 red Bell peppers
1 1/2 tbs fresh thyme leaves
1 28-oz can diced tomatoes
3 tbs capers
1/4 c red wine
3 tbs balsamic vinegar
2 medium globe eggplants* or 5 Chinese eggplants
freshly ground black pepper
2 tbs minced fresh basil

Warm the oil in a large pot over medium high heat. Peel and quarter the onions, then cut the quarters into thin slices. Add onions to oil and cook, covered, while moving on with the other ingredients. Mince the garlic and cut the Bell peppers into 1/2″-long batons.  Add the garlic, peppers, and thyme to the sauteing onions, stir to combine and continue to cook, covered, until tender and juicy. Add the diced tomatoes and their juices, the capers, the wine, and the vinegar to the pot and stir to combine. Remove alternating strips of peel from the eggplants and cut into generous 1 1/2″ pieces. Add to pot with about 2 tsp of salt and 1 tsp of pepper (to start). Stir and reduce heat to medium low. Continue to cook about 35-45 minutes, stirring periodically, until the eggplant is tender and is easily pierced with a fork. Adjust seasoning, stir in the basil, and reduce heat to lowest possible setting to keep warm.

Finish the polenta & assemble the dish

Unmold the polenta and cut into 1cm slices. Cut the slices into half moons. In a large dutch oven or frying pan, heat 2 tbs neutral oil over medium high heat. Add the polenta half moons in two batches (or however many you can fit at a time without crowding) and cook 2-3 minutes each side to brown lightly.

Divide the polenta half moons between the plates in pinwheel patterns, spooning the caponata into the center of the plate. Serve immediately.

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