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Polenta squares with dates, goat cheese, pickled onions

Polenta squares: dates, goat's cheese, pickled onions from Dinners for Winners

Last Friday, THE SUN CAME OUT! It gave me spring fever so bad, I just wanted to leave work and start the weekend — to get out of the stuffy office air and into Spring. I had burgers to grill for our friends that night! I left for my noon gym class and instead of a shower and returning to the office afterwards, turned my sweaty self towards home. It felt amazing; the sunshine through the windshield, new Foster the People playing super loud, full-on spring-break 65 degrees.

But traffic was terrible; it took me 45 minutes to get home. And I was becoming famished. I stopped for a quick drive-through lunch to bring home for us, and reached for my wallet in my handbag. MY WALLET WASN’T THERE, ya’ll. Ahk!

My mind raced to the last time I had seen it, but I couldn’t remember. I parked, got out and searched under the seats, in the glove compartment, looked through my handbag again, checked my gym bag, looked through my reusable shopping bags: nothing. I called Nathan and had him look around the house. Nothing. I called the office and had them search my desk. Nothing. Where was it?!

I drove the rest of the way home, now exasperated, worried, and blood-sugar levels quickly crashing. I checked my account online to see if anyone was spending our $$$, but all looked well…….

I could only remember using it at Fred Meyer the night before, getting supplies for dinner-party prep. My husband phoned Freddies.

Polenta squares: dates, goat's cheese, pickled onions from Dinners for Winners

They had my wallet! In debating a buy-one-get-one deal with the checker, I’d left it there at the register. Oh, me.

Nathan went to pick it up (and procured lunch for us, thanks babe), and everything was still in my wallet! Even some cash. Major points for Fred Meyer!

I was so relieved and grateful. Just what everyone hopes will happen if one’s wallet goes missing — that it will turn up, in one piece, everything still in it. One hour from discovering it was lost to finding it again…. HURRAY! On with the weekend! (Cash in hand, identification in hand = beer-thirty, amiright?)

A beer was well-deserved after my short-lived wallet panic, and I always want snacks when I drink beer. I just can’t help it; pretzels, peanuts, spicy tots are made for beer buddies. But these little polenta bites are legit happy-hour food, pretty enough for a dinner-party table and simple enough for a sunny Friday afternoon, off early from work. With polenta made ahead of time, kept it wrapped in the fridge, these little bites are just minutes to being ready!

Polenta squares with dates, goat cheese, and pickled onions from Dinners for Winners

The pickled onions themselves are great on everything, as have been explored just recently on the www, I love to keep a jar in the fridge, and pairing them with dates was inspired by one of my all-time favorite things to eat, a spinach salad from Ottolenghi’s Jerusalem cookbook. It’s wonderful that a little of the pungent, briney-paired-with-sweet flavors find their way here. (Seriously, yes, the pickled onions are that neon shade of pink.) Smooth goat’s cheese and a sprinkle of cilantro tingle my nose as I’m about to bite into one of these little noshes. I love ‘em! Happy weekend!

Polenta squares with dates, goat cheese, pickled onions from Dinners for Winners

Crisp polenta squares with dates, goat cheese, pickled onions

You’ll need:

  • cooked, cooled polenta (method below) or a purchased log of polenta
  • 2 tablespoons olive oil
  • 3 – 4 pitted Medjool dates, each sliced lengthwise into 4 – 6 spears
  • a few slices of pickled red onion (method below)
  • 3 or so ounces goat’s cheese, room temperature
  • cilantro leaves

Cut the polenta into 2-inch squares, or, if using purchased polenta, slice off rounds 1/2-inch thick. Heat oil in a large non-stick skillet over medium heat. Let the squares or rounds brown on each side, 8 – 10 minutes per side — don’t be tempted to move them except for one flip, they are delicate. Carefully transfer to a paper-towel lined plate to drain before topping with a schmear of cheese, two or three spears of date, a twist or two of pickled onion and a cilantro leaf. Cheers!

Pickled onions

  • 1/3 cup white vinegar
  • 1 tablespoon coarse salt
  • 2 tablespoons sugar
  • 1 red onion

Place first three ingredients in a non-reactive container and shake or stir to combine. Add onion slices and enough water to cover onions; shake again. I like to use a small canning jar for these onions, and to keep the lid/ring from rusting, a layer of plastic film before I tighten the lid certainly helps. Chill for 30 minutes or up to several days.

Small-batch polenta

  • 1/2 cup coarsely ground polenta cornmeal
  • coarse salt
  • 2 cups water

Bring water to a boil in a sauce pan, and gradually add polenta, whisking constantly. Lower heat and cook until thickened, stirring occasionally, 20 – 30 minutes. You can cook this longer if you like, as the flavor mellows and sweetens with time on the heat, giving the grains a softer bite, which I like. Season with salt to taste. Pour into a 9 x 9 dish and allow to cool, uncovered. Once cool, polenta should release from its pan easily, inverted onto a plate (carefully, to prevent breaking), and can be wrapped in plastic and stored in the fridge for up to 2 days.

Alternatively, pour off a bit of your next batch of polenta if you’re making some for dinner and enjoy these date-onion bites later in the week.

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Spicy Asian Chex Mix (No-bake!)

Spicy Asian Chex mix from Dinners for Winners

Some years ago when I was a kid and my grandma started baking (microwaving?) the original Chex Mix during the holidays, I fell in love. I’ve always been big on snacks, salty especially, and as a Grown Up I’m quite sure I’ve never sipped a strong drink that wasn’t improved with a savory, crunchy nosh alongside, amiright? Chex Mix is synonymous with parties, with gatherings; reaching into the dish while clustered around it in lively conversation and not realizing how much I’ve eaten. A friend for bourbon in my tummy. A pal for my taste buds.

Delightedly, there are endless flavors of snack mixes featuring Chex cereal. I browse the recipes on their site. I make them. They’re always good! I mean how about Indian-spiced with coriander, cumin and mint? A sweet Chai style with cardamom, nutmeg, cloves, cinnamon, orange peel and vanilla? Buffalo mix with celery seed and hot sauce? One of my faves had pistachios, coconut flakes and a honey-ginger glaze, that one disappeared in a flash. This chile-lime version started out in the biggest bowl I own and was nearly gone after one of our game-night parties. I’m dying to try this cornbread mix version — um, awesome!

Recently I started recipe-testing my own Chex Mix, a Thai version. There was coconut oil in place of the butter, fish sauce for the Worcestershire, lime zest, green curry paste and palm sugar. Turmeric. It smelled just funky enough and had a good zip from the lime. There were sesame seeds, peanuts and crisp chow mein noodles.

But it just didn’t strike a chord with my taste buds. It sat around in the kitchen, uneaten.

And it was too complicated.

Last weekend Nathan and I were drinking beer and watching Drinking Buddies (good movie!) and letting the dog snuggle between us — the only thing missing was a crunchy snack! I hopped into the kitchen and pulled the ingredients that had been waiting for another test version of my Thai Chex mix. I tossed them together in a bowl with a little toasted sesame oil and sprinkled some togarashi seasoning, and we ate it.

And it was the best thing ever.

Spicy Asian Chex mix from Dinners for Winners

The sesame oil is the star flavor, its heady toastiness heightening each crunchy handful. Wasabi peas tingle lips just enough and since everything (except the cereal) is already salted, nothing needed a lot of dressing. Shichimi Togarashi is a mix of toasted seaweed, sesame seeds, ginger, prickly ash, roasted orange peel and ground chiles. It’s not super spicy but has an umami, robust flavor, with a hint of the sea, a noseful of ginger.

I’m glad I decided to simplify. This is the Chex mix I wanted to bring you all along, but I just got caught up in all the possibilities.

So skip the nuking/baking step all together and eat this snack mix! You’ll need good beer, though. I wish you cold have a bottle of what we were drinking, a home brew from our friend Jay that was hoppy and bright — he brewed it with ginger — really wonderful. So you’ll need an IPA.

You’ll need beer and this snack mix. And a party.


Spicy Asian Chex Mix

serves a party

  • 4 cups Rice Chex
  • 2 cups sesame snack sticks
  • 2 cups wasabi peas
  • 1 cup dry roasted peanuts
  • 2 tablespoons toasted sesame oil
  • 1 tablespoon shichimi togarashi

Toss first four ingredients together in a large bowl. Drizzle lightly with sesame oil, sprinkle with togarashi and toss well to combine. Enjoy!

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