Polenta Cake with White Bean Ragout

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Last week I spent four days away from home staffing a conference for work at a large downtown Minneapolis hotel with long days and lots of mediocre banquet food. Coming home was absolute heaven! But one of those banquet meals got my wheels spinning for something similar that was leaps and bounds above mediocre. There was a vegetarian lunch option that consisted of a couple small biscuit-size cakes I think were polenta-based. Topped with a white bean/vegetable mixture, and cold by the time I was able to sit down and eat, it was a dish with so much potential. Reworking it in my mind and checking out a few recipes online, resulted in one large polenta cake with a white bean ragout that has flavor and nuance, both of which were lacking in the banquet version (although I think that banquet version was leaps and bounds above the sad looking chicken dish everyone else was stuck with—so often the vegetarian option at a banquet elicits envy from my table mates, and that makes me feel smugly happy!).

Polenta Cake with White Bean Ragout
Adapted from this Cookstr recipe and another on Food.com. The white bean ragout can be made a day or two ahead, giving the flavors time to fully meld.

Extra-virgin olive oil for coating pan
11 oz. (about 2 cups) coarse ground polenta (corn meal)
3 cups water
2 cups vegetable broth
1 cup milk (either dairy or non-dairy)
Salt & freshly ground pepper, to taste

Preheat the oven to 400°F. Oil a well-seasoned 10-inch cast-iron skillet or other oven-safe 10-inch round pan and place in the oven for a few minutes to heat. Heating the pan or dish is important—it helps the polenta form a bottom crust.

In a heavy saucepan, whisk together the polenta, water, broth, and milk and over medium heat. Bring slowly to a boil, whisking often to prevent lumps from forming. Reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes until thick and smooth. Season with salt and black pepper and carefully pour into the hot prepared skillet or dish.
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Bake the polenta cake until it pulls away from the sides of the pan and is lightly golden, 45-60 minutes. The cake will be crisp.
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While the polenta cake is baking, prepare white bean ragout (or make it the day before):

1 15 oz. can cannellini (white kidney) beans, drained, and liquid reserved
1 tablespoon extra-virgin olive oil
2 cloves garlic, finely chopped
1 medium onion, diced
1 tablespoon fresh thyme, chopped
¼ teaspoon crushed red pepper flakes
3 cups chopped escarole, kale, or spinach
3 ripe plum tomatoes, seeded and diced
1 tablespoon unsalted butter or vegan margarine
1/8 cup Italian parsley, chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper, to taste
½ cup shredded smoked provolone cheese (optional)

Drain the beans, reserving the liquid and adding enough water to it to make one cup; set aside. Heat the olive oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the garlic, onions, thyme, and crushed red pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are soft, about 8-10 minutes. Add the beans and bean liquid/water. Cover and bring to a simmer; simmer 5 minutes.
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Stir in escarole and simmer until it is wilted. Add the tomatoes, butter and parsley. Remove from heat the stir until the butter is melted. Season with salt and pepper.
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Cut polenta cake into 8 wedges, and serve each wedge topped with white bean ragout. Sprinkle with smoked provolone. Makes 8 servings.
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