Monday, March 9, 2009

Paper Chef 38: Of figs and olives

As I learn more and more about the food blogging world, I have come to realize that everything that I can possibly think of creating...has been done before! So having come to a cook's block of sorts, I started trolling the web for inspiration and came across various food blog competitions that one can choose to participate in. One of the first ones that piqued my curiosity is one hosted by Paper Chef. The general idea, if I got it right, is that for every competition, 4 random ingredients are provided and it is up to the contestant to come up with a recipe that encompasses all four.

This cycle's ingredients were listed as: figs, mint, polenta, and ...anchovies! Oh no, I thought, there goes that idea since I don't eat anchovies. But, wait, it turns out that if dietary restrictions so dictate, it is ok to substitute certain ingredients for acceptable alternatives. Hmmm...what better way to get creative and break out of that culinary block I've been suffering from. Also, a great way to cook polenta for the first time in my life -- let the games begin!

My first struggle was -- what do I substitute for anchovies? Having been raised a vegetarian, I have never tasted anchovies. After interviewing colleagues, friends and my husband, the most often used phrases to describe the taste of anchovies were: salty (helpful) and fishy (not so helpful). After racking my brains all afternoon, I decided to go with kalamata olives as a vegetarian alternative for anchovies in a bid to create a very salty and intense (though, I hope, not quite fishy) flavor.

Having settled on the ingredients, all that remained was to come up with an actual recipe. Well...I ended up creating two! I can't really decide on one over the other, since they both fared well in impartial taste-tests. But I think I personally favored Recipe 1, Minty Mediterranean Croquettes, a little bit more and have chosen that to be my entry for Paper Chef 38. I am, however, posting both recipes if you would like to try them out for yourself.

Recipe 1
Minty Mediterranean Croquettes
(Polenta croquettes with figs and olives in a minted panko crust)

3/4 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
3 cups cold water
1-1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
3/4 C Pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
3/4 C Mission figs, diced
1/4 C dried spearmint
(wash and pat dry 3C fresh mint leaves. Spread thinly on a cookie sheet and bake at 180 deg F for 2-4 hours, until dry. Crumble.)
1C Panko (Japanese style breadcrumbs)
Thinly sliced cave aged Gruyere, 10 slices
1 large egg
Olive oil for brushing onto croquettes

Cook polenta with water and salt until it is thick and starts to pull away from the pan. Let it cool slightly until it can be handled, but is still warm.

Stir in figs and olives into polenta and shape into patties 3” in diameter and 1” in height.

Top with sliced Gruyere and let it melt on top of polenta.

Beat egg in bowl and set aside.

Mix dried mint into panko and set aside.

Dip polenta patties into egg, followed by dipping in minted panko.

Brush with olive oil and lay on hot griddle, oil side down, to cook.

Brush top with oil and flip. Cook both sides until golden brown.

Note: Although delicious by itself, this can also be served with the minted fig chutney posted below.

Recipe 2:

Grilled olive polenta with minted fig chutney

For the chutney:

1 T Olive oil
1/4 cup Finely chopped red onion: have it
2 T fresh ginger, peeled and grated
1 serrano pepper, finely chopped
1/3 C packed brown sugar
½ C cider vinegar
3 C coarsely diced (dried) mission figs
1/3 C water for soaking figs, if using dried
1/4 cup finely chopped fresh mint
Spice mix:
2 t curry powder
¼ t ground cloves
1/8 t ground cinnamon
1/8 t ground allspice

If using dried figs, soak in water for 1 hour to re-hydrate. Heat oil in a large nonstick skillet over medium heat. Add onion, ginger, and pepper; cover and cook until fragrant, stirring occasionally. Stir in brown sugar, vinegar, spice mix and figs. Cook until reduced completely. Take off heat and stir in mint.
Yield: 8 servings

For the grilled polenta:
3/4 cup coarse yellow cornmeal
3 cups cold water
1-1/4 teaspoons kosher salt
1/2 C Pitted Kalamata olives, chopped
2 T or more melted butter

Put the cornmeal, water, and salt in a medium saucepan and whisk vigorously. Bring to a boil over high heat, stirring occasionally. Reduce the heat to medium-low and simmer until polenta is very thick and pulls away from the pan.

Spread in a loaf pan and stir in chopped kalamata olives.

Refrigerate ~3 hours.

Cut into 1” thick slices and brush with melted butter on both sides.

Grill on hot griddle till slightly browned, or lay out on cookie sheet and broil in oven.

Serve with minted fig chutney. Enjoy!


  1. Sounds delicious. I need to start making my own Panko the way my grandmother used to make it. They only have the fine variety of bread crumbs here. :)

  2. They both sound great combinations, would love to try them.


  3. I love the croquette idea! And I think kalamatas were a great substitute! Its funny you used, "minted" too.