A Really Great Polenta Finishes Off Strong

Can you see flavor? Strictly speaking, no. In reality, though, I start salivating when I look at certain foods. We all do. And what gets me giddy is seeing flavor happening or evolving or revealing itself through cooking. It’s like watching a flat sheet of paper turn into an intricate origami figure.

I’ll use polenta to illustrate this point because, let’s face it, the bar is pretty low when it comes to its initial flavor. I have spent precious time over the years trying to convince reluctant partakers that polenta is actually worth the sweat. That’s because I know that a shot of something punchy can really bring it to life. Once you’ve added a big heap of freshly grated Parmesan, say, into the bubbling mass of orange-yellow magma, you can actually see it melt away, the consistency change and flavor being created. This moment, followed by the polenta waking up from its slumber like a friendly giant, asserting its delicately sweet, deep corn flavor as a base for all sorts of other delicious things — that’s when I feel that I have, hopefully, proved my point.

My recipe today, though, isn’t livened up by adding butter and cheese. Instead, the polenta is left as a blank canvas, splashed with roasted-until-golden mushrooms and charred tomatoes. These do what the cheese usually does: load the polenta with the umami richness it needs to get going. But it is the finishing oil, spiked with spices and aromatics, that pulls everything together and brightens the polenta in the same way that Parmesan does.

Recipe: Spicy Roasted Mushrooms With Polenta

Incidentally (or maybe not), using flavored oils is another example of how I can, quite literally, see flavor happening. The best illustration for this is cilbir, a Turkish dish of poached eggs, served huddled in a bowl over garlic yogurt. To finish it off, simmering butter gets an infusion of Aleppo pepper, painting it a bright scarlet red, and is then spooned over the pristine white yogurt. Try that mixture the next time you poach an egg, with or without yogurt, or drizzle some over a wintry soup in need of an extra kick.

Flavored oils, in which spices and other aromatics are briskly warmed up to release their flavors, are some of the most effective and seductive tools in my bag of kitchen tricks. The ability of hot oil to quickly penetrate dried spices and reactivate them to release dormant aromas and colors allows me to see this magical transformation happening in real time.

This technique is most developed in Indian cooking, where the word “tadka” (or “tarka”) is widely used both to describe the process of infusing an oil with a range of aromatics and to name the spiced oil itself. It can be prepared with ghee or coconut oil, nutty oils and more neutral ones, depending on the application.

For me, this technique’s attraction is in its ability to disperse flavor, and often texture, at different stages of cooking. For some soups, dals or stews, for example, I often start by frying some fresh aromatics, like onion, garlic and ginger, in plenty of oil, before adding crushed dried spices, like cumin, coriander or cardamom. I then set aside some of the oil and spices and carry on cooking. Only at the end, as I serve, do I spoon the reserved aromatic oil on top. This way, I get the mellow flavors of the aromatics in the background and those same spices in the foreground, with all their intensity, tempered only slightly by the initial cooking.

But a finishing oil doesn’t necessarily need to be part of the main dish’s cooking process. I often make it while the soup or stew bubbles away on the stove, ready to come into action just before serving. For example, I can start by slowly frying thinly sliced garlic, fresh chile and julienned ginger in some oil for a good 10 minutes, until tanned and crispy. I fish out the aromatics with a slotted spoon, add fresh curry leaves or an herb like cilantro and fry for no more than a minute. Once those are also removed and only a few tablespoons of oil remain in the pan, I add dried spices and cook for a couple of minutes. The oil and spices can then be injected with more flavor by adding lemon or lime juice and zest, vinegar or a tablespoon of soy. I end up with a bunch of crispy toppings, ready to add a whole load of crunch and texture, plus an infused oil that imparts all those flavors as it is stirred through the dish.

You can choose some of the elements I mentioned or all of them, depending on what you are cooking and what spices you have on hand, but don’t be too precious in the application. There is hardly a roasted vegetable, meat or fish, stew or braise, cooked grain or egg that wouldn’t benefit from this flood of flavor and texture.

And while on the topic of texture, I couldn’t possibly end without talking about chile crisp, or crispy chile oil, a mainstay in my house and in many, many others, so much loved thanks to the crunch and intense aroma it brings to the table. If you watch Sohla El-Waylly, who also contributes to The New York Times, make her homemade version of the popular Lao Gan Ma’s condiment, you will see how she manages to “maximize the crunch,” as she puts it, by adding roasted peanuts and heaps of fried ginger and shallots — creating wonderfully delicious flavor.

Recipe: Spicy Roasted Mushrooms With Polenta

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