This salad isn’t much of a panzanella. It lacks the defining pan…
My apologies to the Italians for desecrating this time-honored classic…but at least I used polenta?
This is more of a nod to to the Tuscan salad of stale bread, tomato and basil. Crispy squares of baked polenta replace the stale bread, making it gluten-free. The polenta also significantly changes the texture, upping the creaminess, without wholly abolishing the toothsome quality. This salad brings together many spring flavors: sweet peas, roasted asparagus and young sprouts. The basil, pistachio and bright, lemony vinaigrette really take it over the top.
My first favorite thing about spring is, obviously, the weather warming up. A very close second is the return of vegetables. You know, dirty ones, from the ground. We live at seven-thousand feet in a mountain town in northern New Mexico. That means that our growing season is a little slow to start and early to end. While things aren’t in full swing yet, I have been enjoying the heck out of our local sunchokes, greens, herbs and sprouts.
There is also some incredible wild food to be found this time of year. The asparagus pictured below was actually foraged from my family’s land. It’s wild and I am absolutely wild about it. My family’s property is a part of a 300 year old, community-operated, irrigation system called the acequia, which was brought to New Mexico with Spanish colonization. The acequia diverts water from rivers through ditches that are controlled by a series of gates. It is along these ditches that asparagus and wild plums grow freely. It is a system that feels like it’s out of another time, because it is. It fosters an intimate relationship to water that makes evident its sacredness. The acequia runs dry earlier or later in the season, depending on the amount of winter precipitation. The preciousness of a resource becomes far more apparent when you can watch and feel its impact.
Moving to New Mexico was about a lot of things for us. High on that list was a desire to express, on a daily basis, the sacred connection that humans have to the earth. We wanted to live in deeper communion with the land, the elements, our community and each other. There are many days that I spend in the world of my computer, connecting through the channels of my electronic devices. But living here, in this majestic, “land of enchantment”, walking outside to watch the earth at work, I remember the old way. I don’t think that we can wholly go back, dismissing our modernity. And I think to do that would be to miss the beauty, the medicine, of our time. We are experiencing, more than any generation ever has, a global tribe, a dissolving of boundaries that is bringing both chaos and connection.
I do, however, implore myself and you to remember the utter profundity of simple things. Connecting to the sustaining force of the earth, we recall something that we forgot was forgotten.
With love and earth memories,
- 1½ cups polenta
- 7 cups water
- 1½ teaspoons sea salt
- 3 tablespoons fresh lemon juice
- 1 tablespoon red wine vinegar
- ⅓ cup olive oil
- 1 small garlic clove, minced or pressed with through a garlic press
- ¼ teaspoon stone ground mustard
- ½ teaspoon salt
- lots of freshly ground black pepper
- 1 bunch asparagus
- the prepared polenta
- 2 heaping tablespoons coconut oil
- 1 10 ounce package of frozen organic peas
- 3 small or 2 medium stalks celery, sliced thin on a bias
- a large handful of sunflower sprouts
- 2 cups loosely packed basil leaves, sliced thinly
- black pepper and sea salt to taste
- 1 cup shelled, roasted and salted pistachios, chopped
- Rub a 13 x 9 inch pan with olive oil and set it aside.
- Bring the water and sea salt to a boil in a large saucepan and reduce the heat to medium so that the liquid returns to a simmer.
- Slowly pour in the polenta, stirring constantly with a whisk to prevent lumps from forming. After the cornmeal is whisked in, keep the mixture at a bare simmer over very low heat. Stir constantly. Cook the polenta, stirring and breaking up any lumps that might form, for 20-25 minutes, until very thick.
- Working quickly, pour the polenta out into the oiled pan, pushing it into the corners and quickly smoothing the top.
- Let cool slightly before putting it in the refrigerator. Chill for 3 hours or overnight.
- Place all of the ingredients into a jar with a tight fitting lid and shake until emulsified.
- Preheat the oven to 425°
- Invert the baking dish of polenta onto a large cutting board and dab it with a clean kitchen towel to absorb some of the moisture from the bottom side. Cut the polenta into one-inch squares and place them onto a rimmed baking sheet. Melt one of the tablespoons of coconut oil and drizzle it over the polenta squares, tossing to coat.
- Place the baking sheet in the oven. and bake for 35-45 minutes, tossing the polenta half way through the baking time.
- Wash, dry and trim the asparagus and cut it into one inch pieces on a bias. Put the second heaping tablespoons of coconut oil and all of the asparagus into a large baking dish and sprinkle with salt and pepper. (You want the asparagus to be able to lay in a single layer.)
- Place the baking dish in the oven and bake, tossing half way through, for 18-22 minutes or until it is just beginning to brown.
- While the asparagus and polenta are baking, bring a saucepan of salted water to a boil.
- Once boiling, add the frozen peas and cook until they are just tender, 1-2 minutes.
- Drain them and run cold water over them until they have cooled. Set aside to drain of excess liquid.
- Once both the polenta and the asparagus have come out of the oven, transfer them to big plates or bowls (to speed up cooling) and let them come to room temperature.
- Place the asparagus, polenta, sunflower sprouts, peas, celery and half of the basil and pistachios into a large bowl with a hefty grinding of pepper. Drizzle half of the dressing over the salad and toss, adding more salt, pepper and dressing to taste. Divide into bowls and top with more basil and pistachios to garnish.