It was chilly in Santa Barbara and we actually had some rain. Hooray! The cool nights are as welcome as the raindrops; it feels like winter — or at least the Southern California version of winter. These cold, wet interludes are fleeting, when they hit I’ve been cramming in stews and soups for that cozy comfort food feeling. A recent family favorite is this warm and creamy polenta with black kale. It makes a delightful, filling and warm meal for a cold, or even just cold-ish, night.
This dish also has an emotional connection for me. During my fall trip to Tuscany we were in the middle of the countryside at the Fattoria Degli Usignoli when fires broke out here at home. At that moment, it was torture to be in Italy far away from my family and worrying if our home was in danger. In my mind I knew everyone would be safe, my husband is the ultimate taskmaster and my mom a warm and loving presence, but I sat down to lunch teary eyed and homesick. We were served this kale and polenta dish and it was perfect — complete comfort in a bowl. Thankfully, it was just a scare and the fire stayed away.
The polenta and kale come together beautifully here, but also feel free to make them as stand alone dishes. Step out beyond the ubiquitous kale salad; here kale morphs in such a lovely, tender and aromatic way when cooked. This is my preferred way of cooking polenta, I saw this method in the L.A. Times years ago and it’s a winner — no stirring needed! It’s also delicious with a simple marinara and parmesan cheese.
Whether it’s a cold, rainy night or simply a hard kind of day, may this dish warm and comfort you from the inside out.
Easy Oven Baked Creamy Polenta
8 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
2 cups polenta
3 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
Heat oven to 350 degrees. In a 3- to 4-quart ovenproof pot, combine the water, salt, polenta and butter. Bake covered for 1 hour. Remove the pot from the oven and stir in the grated cheese. Set aside for 5 minutes to rest before serving. To serve, spoon the polenta into each of 6 warmed shallow pasta bowls. Top with braised kale (recipe follows) if desired.
Simple Braised Kale
2 pounds kale, tough stems discarded and cut or torn into 2” pieces
3 tablespoons olive oil
1 medium onion, sliced
Salt and pepper
1 chile de arbol
1 fresh bay leaf
3 cloves garlic, sliced thin
2 cups water or vegetable broth
Add the oil to a large Dutch oven over medium high heat until the oil is hot and dancing around the pan. Add the onion and season with salt and pepper. Sauté about 5–8 minutes. Next add the chile de arbol, bay leaf and garlic. Once you can smell the garlic, add the kale in batches. Season each handful with salt until all of the kale is fully incorporated and wilted — use tongs or a wooden spoon to move the kale around. Pour in water or stock to cover kale. Put lid on pan and reduce heat to low. Cook for 20 minutes, stirring occasionally and adding more liquid if needed. Remove bay leaf. Taste for seasoning. Spoon into warm bowls filled with polenta and garnish with Parmesan cheese and top-shelf olive oil.