"People are awestruck when you put a plate of this in front of them," says Paul Dickey , of his showy Vegetarian Polenta that was voted "Best Vegetarian Dish in a Non-Vegetarian Restaurant" by Westward Magazine in 1992 (recipe at right).
"Visually, the polenta stands out as the central focus, with its red roasted pepper and black olives vibrant against the white of the mozzarella," says Dickey. "Then, as you move out, the asparagus stalks create a pinwheel that keeps the eye moving around the plate. And the purple radicchio cups in the corner, filled with tomato concasse, sit up high for perspective. Anytime you elevate food on a plate you do a lot for presentation," he says. "You want to work for a 3-D effect, and the negative spaces between the elements on the plate are also important."
Dickey created this entree with the idea that eaters would work their way around the plate. They might start with a bite of polenta, with its aromatic pesto, sun-dried tomato, Ni‡oise olives, roasted red pepper, and mozzarella; then a bite of asparagus, and perhaps a shitake mushroom; then some subtly flavored tomato concasse; and back to the polenta and its toppings again.
"It's kind of playful, a package of diverse textures and diverse tastes," says Dickey. (While at Hopkins, he trained under Baltimore chef Roland Jeannier.) "The polenta in your mouth feels granular, and the soft roasted red peppers balance the earthy richness of the sun-dried tomato. The shitakes have a woodsy flavor that echoes that of the asparagus."
Despite the seeming complexity, he says, "the flavors remain distinct, allowing you to taste each ingredient."
If you think Vegetarian Polenta would make a promising entree for your next dinner party, be sure to leave plenty of time for preparation. "It takes a tremendous amount of work," says Dickey, who recently left the culinary world for a new career in investment banking. "Don't make it for fewer than four people, and give yourself three hours the night before the party to take care of everything."
Suggested wine: "Any good, solid Seyval would go well with this dish, particularly one made with mature grapes that has been aged in oak for at least a year or so," according to retired winemaker and wine instructor Hamilton Mowbray '50, who did research on sensory perception at Hopkins's APL for 20 years before retiring to open Montbray Wine Cellars in Carroll County, Maryland.
The Seyval he considers ideal because it has "a fresh, fruity character that is not sweet, and it has a depth of flavor that won't be overshadowed by the shitake mushrooms and roasted red peppers," Mowbray explains. The wine's "finish" or aftertaste should be both pleasant and strong, he adds.
While a Chenin Blanc from the Loire Valley could prove a satisfying alternative, Mowbray cautions against a Chardonnay. "It's too light," he says. "There's not enough penetration in its flavor, and it doesn't have an outstanding aroma [as a Seyval or Chenin Blanc does] that can be enhanced by the dish."
Method: Bring water to a boil with crushed garlic, miso paste, and salt (about 2 teaspoons). At a rapid boil, slowly add polenta, while stirring slowly. When incorporated, add cheese and white pepper to taste, and then reduce flame to low. Cover and cook for approximately 10 minutes, stirring occasionally. Remove from stove and let cool for a few minutes. Mold polenta into 4-inch tart pans. Allow cakes to cool further, then remove from pans.
Assembly: Generously spread basil pesto on polenta cake, then layer with mozzarella cheese, roasted red pepper strips, sun-dried tomatoes, and olives. Wrap polenta cakes individually with plastic wrap and refrigerate overnight.
Heat skillet to high temperature, add olive oil, then shallots, and reduce heat. Cook for 4 minutes, then add tomatoes and increase heat again. Add wine and cook for 10 minutes. Add salt and pepper to taste.
Final preparation: Remove plastic wrap and bake polenta cakes on cookie sheet at 400ř F for 15 minutes. While polenta is cooking, blanch asparagus, saute shitake mushrooms in oil, and bring tomato concasse to a boil.
Place polenta cake in center of plate. Around it arrange asparagus in groups of three in four bunches as shown below, alternating with radicchio "cups." Spoon tomato concasse into radicchio cups, and place five mushrooms around plate. Garnish with fresh basil and chopped parsley.
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