Even the best cooks get into ruts.
For all the diversity in my weekly menus, I often find myself bored with my cooking. What sounds like an unimaginably exciting and exotic week of dinners to most — for example: Venetian cecchiti with hand-tossed pizza on Monday, sushi and tempura on Tuesday, Wednesday queso fundido and Mexico City-style tacos, Thursday tea-smoked duck and lo mien, and so on — can seem like “same old, same old” to me.
Which is why is was actually refreshing in some way when my wife, battling a stubborn skin rash, told me she needed to go off sugar and wheat for a couple weeks — for all practical purposes, eliminating at least two to three of my weekly standards and nearly all Italian food.
Rather than wallow in frustration, I decided to try to make the most of the situation — not so much by trying to make gluten-free end-run arounds of my typical fare, but to try out some new stuff. Brown rice spaghetti, for example, inspired me to a southeast Asian shrimp/peanut/lime noodle dish with fresh basil, while a corn noodle became a spicy jalapeño and grilled chicken pasta with Southwest overtures. I made English fish & chips with rice-battered halibut. Discovering one of my favorite fishes (barrimundi) now available in the frozen aisle at Trader Joe’s, I made a variety of “fish on…” preparations. (i.e. fish on polenta, fish on rice, fish on quinoa, fish on greens…)
At the same time, trying to work through items forgotten in the depths of my overstuffed freezer and cupboard presented a convergence of creative opportunity. Here were some beautiful shrimp I’d forgotten about, there a bag of heirloom polenta. No gluten there! And I had the makings of what would be one of my favorite recent dishes — photographed above, shared below.
Next time fate deals you an adverse culinary hand, remember that you are strong, you are creative, you are bigger than even the most gluten-free challenge! Cook on, soldier.
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Tomato saffron scampi with polenta and sautéed Tuscan kale
4 cups water
1 cup dry polenta
1 tsp. salt
4 tbsp. butter
1/2 cup grated parmesan
1 lb. large shrimp — shelled, deveined and flattened with the flat part of a chef’s knife
1 large tomato, chopped
1/4 tsp. saffron
1/2 cup white wine
1 bunch Tuscan kale, rinsed and roughly chopped
1/4 cup olive oil
3 garlic cloves, chopped
3 anchovy fillets
1 tsp. crushed red pepper
Cook your polenta: Salt the water and bring it to a simmer over medium-high heat. Stir in the dry polenta and lower heat to medium. Cook, stirring frequently and adding water as necessary, for 20-30 minutes, until polenta is smooth and silky. Remove from heat and stir in 2 tbsp. butter and grated parmesan, and cover.
While the polenta is cooking, you can also cook your kale. Heat olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add anchovy and garlic and cook, stirring, for 1 minute. Add crushed red pepper, toast for 15 seconds, and then add chopped kale. Toss or stir for 1 minute, until kale is coated with oil and cooking. Add 1/2 cup of water, and stir fry until kale is thoroughly wilted and water has evaporated — about 2 – 3 minutes. Remove from heat and cover pan.
Cook your shrimp: Heat a large skillet over medium high heat, and add 1 tbsp. butter and tomatoes. Cook for 2-3 minutes, stirring frequently. Add shrimp, saffron and 1/2 cup white wine. Cook, stirring, for another 2 – 3 minutes, until shrimp and plump and opaque, and half of the wine has cooked off. (If more than half has cooked off, add a little more.) Remove from heat, and stir in another tbsp. butter. Season to taste with salt and pepper.
Divide the polenta between four plates. Top with shrimp and some of the sauce. Serve with sautéed kale.