When you’re not quite ready to fall deep into autumn, late-summer flavors can help ease us into cooler weather. Soft polenta and tender, roasted tomatoes with plumped-up olives are a pretty perfect combo, but add a swirl of basil-forward pistou — a version of Italian pesto minus the nuts and sometimes the cheese — and this dish offers punch with each bite.
Not to be confused with Ligurian pesto, which includes cheese and nuts, pistou is a traditional Provençal cold sauce stirred into soups (e.g. soupe au pistou, similar to an Italian minestrone), tossed with pasta or served with vegetables and roasted meats or fish. It’s traditionally pounded with a mortar and pestle, which makes for a fragrant and rustic sauce of mostly basil, garlic and olive oil. To that, some cooks add grated Parmesan cheese. A food processor works too, but the resulting sauce will be more uniform and a little grittier. So, in a nod to tradition, try hand-pounding the leaves, bruising them in a way that yields a silky, creamy sauce, not to mention a quicker clean-up.
Polenta — coarsely ground cornmeal — plays well with milk and butter, but for a lighter version, substitute chicken or vegetable broth for some or all of the milk. It’s best, though, to not skimp on the final touches of butter and a grating of fresh cheese. To make an even heartier meal, serve with braised meats, such as osso bucco or beef Bourguignon or alongside roasted fish or vegetables. Leftover polenta can be freshened up with some added broth or cream when reheating, and if you make an extra batch of pistou, freeze it for later this winter when you need an instant hit of summer.
Soft polenta with corn and roasted tomato pistou
1 1/2 pounds ripe tomatoes
About 1/3 cup olives, preferably whole such as kalamata or Niçoise
3 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper
1 teaspoon dried herbes de Provence or 2 fresh thyme or rosemary sprigs
4 cups milk (or for a lighter version: chicken broth or vegetable broth)
1 cup polenta (aka corn grits, or medium or coarsely-ground cornmeal)
1 to 2 tablespoons butter
1 cup fresh corn cut off the cob (or frozen kernels)
2 cups fresh basil (about 2 bunches) basil
4 cloves garlic
1/4 cup tablespoon good quality extra-virgin olive oil
1/3 cup grated Parmesan (optional)
Preheat oven to 375 degrees. Cut larger tomatoes in half and place, cut-side down, in a shallow baking dish. If using smaller tomatoes, add whole. Add olives. Drizzle with olive oil, and season with salt, pepper, and dried or fresh herbs. Roast 35 to 40 minutes.
While tomatoes are roasting, make the polenta. Combine milk — or milk and broth — and one teaspoon salt together in a large, heavy-bottom pot over medium-high heat and bring liquid to a low boil; using a whisk, stir in the polenta and whisk to combine. If you have a rind of Parmesan, add that too. Keep whisking until polenta starts to thicken. Reduce heat to low — you want very small bubbles on the surface — and cook, covered, stirring every 5 to 7 minutes for 20 minutes. Turn off heat and stir in 1 to 2 tablespoons butter. Cover and let sit 10 minutes. Add corn kernels and stir again. Taste and add more salt or some pepper, if needed. If too soft, let sit covered a few more minutes. For creamier polenta, add more butter, broth, or a little heavy cream until polenta is to your preferred consistency.
Make the pistou: If using a mortar and pestle: add garlic and a pinch of salt and pound into a rough paste. Rinse basil leaves and shake off excess water, but any remaining moisture is fine — and will yield a silky texture; add leaves a few at a time and pound until bruised and fragrant. Slowly drizzle in olive oil until sauce is thick and well-blended. If using cheese, add and stir to combine.
In a food processor: combine garlic, basil leaves, and a pinch of salt together in the bowl of a food processor and pulse to combine. With the processor running, slowly drizzle in olive oil and cheese, if using, until well-blended.
Pistou can be stored in the fridge up to 3 days. Serve polenta warm in shallow bowls with tomatoes and olives and basil pistou. And more cheese, if desired, and a drizzle of olive oil.
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