I am BACK. A gaping wound IS NOT ENOUGH TO STOP ME.

I’ve never had a cut deep enough that it healed from the inside out before; even though it’s clearly knitting together underneath and is no longer seeping, it still looks like I have an open gash in my hand. Grody.


Aside from a side salad this meal should be practically free, because all the ingredients should already be present in your well-stocked pantry.* Plus, it makes so many leftovers that the cost per meal is probably, like, $0.17. (I haven’t done the math yet, but I’m sure that’s pretty accurate). For this next installment of bean-based cheapass meals I bring you smoky chickpea stew over polenta fries, starring the official spice of Winter 2008** and continued TNS favorite, smoked paprika.

*Okay, fine, you had to buy them at some point for them to be in your pantry. Don’t be such a stickler; this is why you never have any fun.

**I declared this several times in comments around the foodblogosphere, so I assume it’s become common knowledge at this point.

This porridge was TOO HOT.

Polenta was one of the foods I hated as a child, along with anything else other than nachos, white rice, mashed potatoes, corn and Cheez-Its. (NOT to be confused with Cheese NIPS, which are OBVIOUSLY INFERIOR. My dad once worked for Sunshine Biscuits, producer of Cheez-Its and the ersatz Oreo and much-maligned Hydrox, and had very strong opinions on the It vs. Nip debate that rubbed off on his progeny.)


Anyway, I didn’t like it. It was bland mush that seemed more suited to be spackle or library paste than a foodstuff. The things that make polenta good, like giant knobs of butter or piles of cheese, were no-gos in my mother’s constant effort to slenderize, and I didn’t care to try and appreciate its subtle sweet corn flavor without them. To 9-year-old me, polenta = yellow grit. You’d think I might have liked it, given my clear affinity for yellowish and beige foods, but no.

And this porridge was TOO COLD.

Of course, now I know there’s an option other than flavorless grit or butter-laden heart-stopper: fried. I’m still not a huge polenta eater – I really like it, it just seems to fall off my radar easily – but when I do eat it, it’s fried or sauteed.

I usually use a 3-to-1 ration for polenta; three parts liquid to one part cornmeal. Using stock will add flavor, but in the interest of economizing I used plain old water for this batch. I brought the water to a boil, sprinkled the polenta in little by little while whisking, added a generous pinch of salt and left the pot to simmer, stirring occasionally with a long-handled spoon so as to keep away from the little spitting volcanos of molten corn that constantly erupt as the mixture cooks – that shit smarts.

After 20 minutes or so, the cornmeal had absorbed the liquid and formed a thick, golden mass. I stirred in a touch of a nice, peppery olive oil,  poured the whole mess into an oiled baking dish and left it to set up and turned to trying to figure out how to class up a can of chickpeas.

Canned crushed tomatoes. Are they in your pantry? If not, why not? Please explain in 250 words or less.

I decided to make a stew-cum-sauce of garlicky tomatoes and chickpeas spiced with smoked paprika and hot pepper to play off the sweet, crispy polenta fries.

Let’s take a moment and contemplate Spanish smoked sweet paprika, also called pimenton de la vera dulce (you can also get pimenton de la vera agridulce (semisweet) or picante (hot)). The peppers are slowly smoked, traditionally over oak wood and for several weeks. The finished product has an intense rusty red color and an incredibly deep, well, smoky flavor. The sweet version carries no heat, just amazing flavor, making it incredibly versatile (it’s fantastic with lentils); it instantly Spanishifies any food it touches. You should already have some in your kitchen. If you don’t, I’ll give you a one-week window in which to acquire some before we begin to think less of you. Get the real-deal pimenton.  It’s that good.

You should also have a can of crushed/diced/peeled whole tomatoes (San Marzano, please) and some chickpeas in the pantry, along with some fresh garlic and onion and some kind of dried hot pepper, like cayenne.

Currently listening to: Bruce Springsteen, “Working on the Highway.” Love that damn song.*

I started with some yellow onion sweating in olive oil and tossed in a mess ‘o minced garlic along with a healthy dose of smoked paprika, a pinch of freshly-ground cumin and some habanero flakes to slowly infuse the sauce with heat. I let the spices bloom for a minute or two, then added a whole can of crushed tomatoes and left the mix to simmer and thicken.

In theory, you could just use hot smoked paprika and kill two birds with one stone, but I prefer to use a separate hot pepper. When you like smoked paprika the way I like smoked paprika – immoderately and with great abandon – the amount it takes to reach the requisite level of smoky goodness would make things way too spicy. Adding the heat separately allows me to ratchet up the smokiness without burning out my tastebuds.

I wanted my tomatoes thickened but still fresh-tasting, so after 15 minutes I tossed in the chickpeas. I adjusted the salt, added a little more hot pepper, and left the sauce to meld while I returned to the polenta.

*Don’t’ get me wrong, I love Bruce Springsteen. But where the hell is that accent from? I grew up less than 10 miles from where he was raised, and I sure as hell don’t sound like that.

Porridge cut into sticks and fried is JUST RIGHT.

The pan of polenta had been sitting in the fridge while I made the sauce and had firmed up nicely, enabling me to easily cut steak fry-sized polenta fingers and lift them out of the pan cleanly. For maximum flavor, I heated a thin layer of my favorite, strongly flavored olive oil in a heavy skillet and fried the polenta until it was crisp and golden brown on all sides.

When you get to this step, you’re going to want to make extra. Trust me.

One-handed photography! Depth of field gone horribly awry!

I fanned four polenta sticks out on a plate and spooned the chickpea stew over. A sprinkle of diced chorizo (easily omitted, which makes this veg- and vegan-friendly) and some parsley for color contrast, and dinner is served. I added a small side salad that I barely touched because the main course was so delicious and so filling. Every bite brought a crisp crackle of polenta crust and the gentle bite of chickpeas, followed by the hot, creamy interior of the fries. The subtle sweet nuttiness of the chickpeas and cornmeal was a lovely base for the intense paprika and punchy spice, while the just-cooked tomatoes kept things tasting fresh and bright and the garlic was a pungently present background note. Some cumin and Mexican oregano rounded out the flavors and kept things from being too one-note.

This was a very simple, pared-down meal, but there’s a lot you could do to make it more interesting. Sweet, mushy slow-roasted garlic mixed into the polenta would be heavenly. Chopped spinach would be great in the stew, as would diced eggplant, zucchini or any number of other vegetables.  If you wanted to add meat, fresh chorizo would be an excellent addition to the stew (as would andouille, or whatever spicy sausage you can get your hands on).

Can of chickpeas: $0.79. Can of crushed tomatoes: $1.29. Small piece of chorizo, diced for garnish and added porky goodness, $0.80. Yellow onion: $0.74. One cup of polenta: $0.45. Herbs and spices: negligible.  Garlic, olive oil and salt pantry staples.

Grand total for 2 big dinners + a day of leftovers: $4.22, for a per-meal cost of $1.05. Pour yourself a glass of red wine and pretend you’re in a Barcelona tapas bar, for less than the price of an in-flight can of ginger ale. THIS IS THE POWER OF SMOKED PAPRIKA, PEOPLE. Now take your leftover $0.78 and buy yourself something nice.

Smoky Chickpea Stew with Polenta Fries

For the polenta fries:
3 c. water or stock
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 c. polenta
1 tbsp. + 1/4 c. good olive oil

Bring the water and salt to a boil in a heavy saucepan.  Gradually sprinkle in the polenta, whisking as you go.  Turn the heat down and let the polenta simmer, stirring frequently so it doesn’t scorch, until all the liquid is absorbed and the mixture is thick and viscous, 15-25 minutes.  Stir in the tablespoon of olive oil and pour the mix into a lightly oiled, 9×9 cake pan.  Set aside to cool for a few minutes, then refrigerate until ready to saute.

Heat the 1/4 cup of oil in a heavy skillet until just shimmering.  While it heats, turn the now-set polenta out of the cake pan and cut into shapes of your choice.  Fry, turning once, until golden brown on both sides.

For the chickpea stew:
1 tbsp. olive oil
1 small yellow onion, diced
5 large cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp. good pimenton de la vera
2 pinches habanero flakes or cayenne pepper
1/2 tsp. ground cumin
1/2 tsp. Mexican oregano
1 28 oz. can crushed tomatoes
1 15 oz. can chickpeas, rinsed and drained
salt to taste
1 oz. dried chorizo, diced (optional)

In a saucepan, heat the olive oil over med-low heat.  Add the onion and cook for 4-5 minutes, until just translucent.  Add the garlic and all the herbs/spices and cook for 1-2 minutes more, until fragrant.

Pour in the tomato and adjust the heat so that the sauce is simmering.  Simmer for 10-15 minutes until thickened but still fresh-tasting.  Add the chickpeas, stir to combine and let them heat through.  Adjust the seasoning, and leave the stew on low heat while you fry the polenta.

To serve:
Arrange 1/4 of the polenta on each plate and add several heaping spoonfuls of stew.  Garnish with diced chorizo, if desired.