Sweet Corn Polenta

We had no television or Internet to entertain us in our temporary Parisian one-bedroom, six-floor walk-up. And so, when we had down time, usually in the late afternoon, we either listened to music and read, or turned to podcasts. We didn’t listen separately via headphones like we do at home. Instead, we gathered around the iPod dock/stereo, (like olden times!). One that we found particularly interesting was an episode of Fresh Air titled, “Habits: How They Form and How to Break Them.”

In it, Terry Gross interviews Charles Duhigg, author of "The Power of Habit: Why We Do What We Do in Life and Business.” Duhigg explains how every habit has three parts: the cue, the routine (the habit itself), and the reward, and how these three events work together to form, and reinforce, a habit. He also explains why our brains form habits: because it’s a more efficient way to do certain repetitive tasks. Take brushing your teeth for example. We don’t have to think about the process. We can brush away while our mind wanders to what we need to buy at the grocery store or how to say I would like to make reservations for tomorrow night in French. But what interested me most was the part where Duhigg explained how to change a habit. The first step, he said, is to identify what the cue and the reward are. “But,” said Duhigg, “if you go on vacation—and we know this from studies—if you go on vacation, and all the cues are different, you'll brush your teeth in a different way without even noticing it. You'll put your shoes on in a different order without paying any attention to it because once the cues change, the habit becomes broken up… [it’s a] a great reason why changing a habit on a vacation is one of the proven most-successful ways to do it.”

Well, I didn’t break any bad habits while in Paris (unless becoming accustomed to a daily aperitif at 5 o’clock counts?), but it did get me thinking about what mine are back home and how I might one day break them.
Matt said this sweet corn polenta and eggplant is the last attempt in this kitchen. I shook my head at him. “No, it isn’t. We’re still here for another 10 days!” 

But if one packed box leads to another and Matt ends up being right, I’m happy for this kitchen to go out on such a great meal. I had been trying really hard, for months now, not to buy the cookbook Plenty, (one more thing to own and box up) but with the arrival of summer and that bin of fresh corn greeting me outside the grocery-store entrance, I gave in in order to make this dish.

Ottolenghi is right. Don’t expect this sweet corn polenta to taste like regular polenta. No, it’s so much more like a rich, sweet corn purée with flecks of feta throughout. The dish on a whole is a bit labor intensive but definitely worth the effort, especially for a summer dinner party. In fact, I was just as impressed with the flavorful eggplant sauce as I was the faux polenta. 
Matt and I are moving from a one-bedroom, one-bathroom apartment we’ve shared these past four years to a three-bedroom, two-bathroom house with a yard and a driveway. And for this month of escrow, of being in-between homeownership and renting—I’ve been excited, though not just about all the extra space, the blessed space (!), and the idea of getting a dog (Matt has already purchased this book.), but also with the idea that in the new environment all of my cues are going to change. And you know what Duhigg says: when your cues change, your habits change. Perhaps I’m being overly optimistic, but I have plans for new cues that will lead to new habits, like, say, drinking my morning coffee outside on the deck, with the fresh air and sunshine instead of inside by the warm light of my computer screen; becoming a gardener and consequently having bunches of flat leaf parsley at my disposal; becoming someone who would have composted the ears of corn used in this recipe instead of throwing them in the trash; and of course, hosting family and friends for long visits and forcing them to shoot Bon Appétempt videos with us.
If you haven’t had the opportunity to flip through the pages of this gorgeous book, I urge you to do so on your next trip to your local, likely understaffed bookstore. You’ll be shocked at everything this guy does sans meat. Actually, I think you’ll be inspired. I certainly have been. This may be the last you’ll see of our rental kitchen, but you’ll see plenty more of Plenty.
Sweet Corn Polenta via Plenty by Yotam Ottolenghi
Serves 4
Eggplant sauce
2/3 cup vegetable oil (I used Safflower--worked great!)
1 medium eggplant, cut into 3/4-inch dice
2 tsp tomato paste
1/4 cup white wine
1 cup chopped peeled tomatoes (fresh or canned)
6 1/2 tbsp water
1/4 tsp sugar
1 tbsp chopped oregano

6 ears of corn
2 1/4 cups water
3 tbsp butter, diced
7 oz feta, crumbled
1/4 tsp salt
black pepper

To make the eggplant sauce: Heat up the oil in a large saucepan and fry the eggplant on medium heat for about 15 minutes, or until nicely brown. (Note: the eggplant sticks to the pan like crazy towards the end of the 15 minutes, but don't worry, it'll come right off when you add the tomatoes.) Drain off as much oil as you can and discard it. Add the tomato paste to the pan and stir with the eggplant. Cook for 2 minutes, then add the wine and cook for 1 minute. Add the chopped tomatoes, water, salt, sugar and oregano and cook for a further 5 minutes to get a deep-flavored sauce. Set aside; warm it up when needed.

To make the polenta: Remove the leaves and "silk" from each ear of corn, then chop off the pointed top and stalk. Stand each ear upright on its base and use a sharp knife to shave off the kernels. (If you do this inside of a very shallow bowl, it might save you some cleanup time.) You want to have 1 1/4 lbs of kernels. (I don't have a scale. Six ears was great.)

Place the kernels in a medium saucepan and cover them with the water. Cook for 12 minutes on a low simmer. Use a slotted spoon to lift the kernels from the water and into a food processor; reserve the cooking liquid. Process them for  quite a few minutes, to break as much of the kernel case as possible. Add some of the cooking liquid if the mixture becomes too dry to process.

Now return the corn paste to the pan with the cooking liquid and cook, while stirring, on low heat for 10 to 15 minutes, or until the mixture thickens to a mashed potato consistency. Fold in the butter, the feta, salt and some pepper and cook for a further 2 minutes. Taste and add more salt if needed.

Divide the polenta among shallow bowls and spoon some warm eggplant sauce in the center.
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Matthew said...

This was soooo good! It won't be the last post from the old kitchen though b/c we have two attempts stock-piled! Right?

Louisa said...

I'm with you on the love for this book. I loved this dish too, my other favourite is the parsnip dumplings in prune broth. Have you tried that one yet? The prunes give the broth the most amazing flavour! Good luck with the move!

amelia said...

wowwwww you're really pushing that pesto you made, aren't ya??

Matthew said...

Just sayin' :-)

Anonymous said...

I'm drooling! Cannot wait to see the new digs. Here's to breaking old habits!

K said...

This looks SO good. Can't wait to hear about your new home -- if you need any gardening help, let me know!

Stephanie said...

Ooh, I have been looking at Plenty and your post might just push me over the edge . . .

Congrats on the new house! Enjoy the space, and, especially, the kitchen space -- I hope it's bright and lovely with lots of storage and counter space for you to create lots more edible masterpieces.

Hope the move goes smoothly!

Katherine @ eggton said...

Amelia and Matt, congrats on the house. That's so huge! What are you going to eat, your first night there? Pizza and beer, while sitting on cardboard boxes?

I moved from a tiny, not-studio-but-not-really-a-one-bedroom-either apartment in Manhattan to a three-bedroom house in Alabama last year. We have a porch, with a swing, and a back yard, and we were able to get a dog. We're still renting, but it's the space that's so glorious. The space, the space! I still get giddy about it sometimes. Yesterday evening I sat on the porch with a huge box of green beans from the CSA--almost a peck of them, which I've never seen before. And I snapped off the ends. It was magical--the sun was going down, and the routine motion of snapping over and over again let me free-associate the way I do when I go to the symphony. It was a kind of contentment I never felt in my place in New York.

All that's to say that I am really happy for you and I'm excited to see this new kitchen! Cheers to both of you.

Sarah said...

This looks so, so good, and it might be just the thing to finally take Plenty out of my Amazon wishlist and into checkout.

I always love reading your posts (have I said that before) for your unforced bits of insight and wisdom. The idea of habit cues resonates with me, especially now, as I burrow down to study for the bar exam. There are times when habit and routine can really help you be efficient, but I am missing out on things (like sitting outdoors, as you say).

Congrats on moving to a new(er), bigger place! 3 bedrooms, yard, and driveway sound luxurious :)

amelia said...

oh my goodness, Katherine, I just got the most amazing image in my head and now want to move to Alabama, or at least come visit. Sound cool?

amelia said...

thank you and yes! I already know that I need loads of help! loads! We have a nice long strip of "garden" area at the side of the yard (photos to come?) and I'm already wondering if I need to build raised beds or if I can just get some good soil and lay in top of what's already there... From what I know (not much), in order for things to grow, you need good soil and sunlight. yes?

amelia said...

Thanks, Louisa! And I have my eye on that one. Will try as soon as possible!

joanna said...

this is one of my favorite cookbooks! the recipes never disappoint. i haven't made the corn polenta, but sweet corn with flecks of feta sounds like a taste bud explosion that i am totally up for!

as far as habits, i actually like most of mine. except that shopping one. i mean, i love it, but it's probably not the best habit to have??

amelia said...

thanks, sarah!! And wishing you the best as you study! May it be outside with a a plate of sliced cucumbers sprinkled with lime juice and salt and a bowl of dry roasted pepitas. :)

Sara in America said...

This looks delicious. You've sold me on getting PLENTY - I've been waiting it out for some weird reason too.

And congratulations on your new home! I'm very excited for you.

Jessica said...

You made me buy Plenty just now! Congrats on the house!

Ileana said...

Congrats on the move! Funny you say that about the cues. I was just telling my bf that in this new apartment, I've somehow had pb and j toast with berries for breakfast every day instead of my usual oatmeal. And I'm mostly drinking my coffee with a little milk instead of having it black. ;)

Also, love love love Plenty! So glad you gave in. His black pepper tofu is spectacular. Can't wait to see what else you try. And if it turns out you have a green thumb at your new spacious home, please let us know!

Adam Hoff said...

I can't wait to stay at your new house and be forced to make Bon Appetempt videos with you!!! It's my life's dream.

K said...

The key ingredient to most good gardens is luck.

For veggies, raised beds all the way... they look better and support the plants better.

I think we all agree that we want to see pics as soon as possible!

Mary Anne said...

It's my life dream too! WOw, this meal looks delicious! Polenta from fresh corn?? That's awesome.

Kata Phusin said...

Happy moving and housing transition; it is so fantastic to move to a place with an "outside"!
Funny you spoke of vacation here, this is exactly the kind of thing I can imagine making during vacation, during siesta time, and eating with friends in the eve.
I love how a "life is beautiful" vibe sings through this post ~ good food, good friends, and the promise of a garden, these are the priorities I think that more and more of us share.

amelia said...

awww, love that you picked up on a "life is beautiful" vibe!! This very moment, I'm more "Life is in boxes." :)

sg said...

May all your habit breaking wishes come true at your new home! I look forward to stories about your new adventures!

Nicole said...

I'm embarrassed to say I've owned "Plenty" since Thanksgiving and although I've drooled over the pages so many times, I've never actually cooked anything from it yet. I'll change to change that right away!

Nicole said...

Oh--forgot to mention that that Fresh Air interview sounds so interesting! I've gotta find it.

Ms.Nožisková said...

*fascinating* about how to change habits! i'm with you... i ought to enjoy my morning coffee outside on my deck, properly greeting the new day... instead of, gracious... whatever it is i do. must keep this in mind.

also! love this post as i can make the recipe verbatim! i've turned 95% vegan since moving back to the states (more my palate & skin's decision than mine) and some sheep's feta from france is on my "approved" list! hurray for ottolenghi & other like-minded UK chefs.

Sarah said...

Thank you, and um, now that you mention it, you're right-that dish sounds like the perfect antidote! Cheers :)

Katherine @ eggton said...


I made the eggplant sauce over the weekend and served it over regular polenta and it was awesome! It was so easy to make and has a lot of flavor. I'm also getting lots of eggplants in my CSA box and I had no idea what to do with them, so this recipe was very welcome.