The Rut

Even the best cooks get into ruts.

Tomato saffron scampi with polenta and sautéed Tuscan kale

Tomato saffron scampi with polenta and sautéed Tuscan kale

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
serves 4

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.

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Andy
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 03:00:41

    Very cute, Dude!


  2. Jessamine in PDX
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 03:34:21

    Ugh — the rut! I hate the rut. I will make carnitas for tacos, platters of delicious meatballs, vats of curries, stews and bolognese and be fine, happy and satisfied. But when the rut hits, I seem incapable of figuring out what to do with a whole roasted chicken. That dinner looks like great way to break free from the rut…and blow through your pantry/freezer too. Always a good thing!


    • scolgin
      Mar 07, 2014 @ 18:04:58

      I’m making good progress on the pantry/freezer. Yeah, it’s weird, isn’t it… how you can just be happily cooking along, satisfied with everything you’re making. And then all of sudden you can’t stand to look at a plate of your own food. And then after a few days or a week it passes…


      • Jessamine in PDX
        Mar 07, 2014 @ 18:09:21

        I’m lucky though because I don’t have to worry about cooking for a family, or really, anyone else but me. I’ll just eat ramen for a few days and my husband will forage for convenience food in the freezer since he’s off work at midnight, and then eventually I’ll get back on track. I’d hate to be in a rut with hungry kids! I’d be screwed.

      • scolgin
        Mar 07, 2014 @ 18:15:21

        The kids get what they get and LIKE IT!!! }:-0

  3. April
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 15:02:55

    Looks delish Sean! By the way, we’ve been gluten free for 6 months now and it’s great. The best GF pastas I’ve found by a long mile are Le Veneziane corn pasta (the Italian’s know a thing or two about pasta) & Jovial (which does an egg and rice pastas). TJ’s rice pasta is pretty good but very starchy. These two knock the socks off all other GF pastas I’ve found & there’s no excessive rinsing necessary with Le Veneziane. Hope Leslie is feeling better! xo


    • scolgin
      Mar 07, 2014 @ 18:03:36

      Thanks for the info, April. It’s good to know there is actually a GOOD gluten-free pasta out there. You’re right, the TJs is kinda starchy. We’re not gluten free, we’re just gluten reduced. (I’m a founder member of the GDF — the Gluten Defense Front — so even that is challenging for me!)


  4. Dragnfli
    Mar 07, 2014 @ 16:38:21

    Is dry polenta another name for cornmeal or do you have to get a special kind of cornmeal?


    • scolgin
      Mar 07, 2014 @ 18:02:10

      Well, polenta is often milled a little finer than regular cornmeal. But that will work too. I buy my polenta from a company in South Carolina called Anson Mills ( and they make it with heirloom corns, really great stuff.


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