A little over ten years ago, my husband and I got married in Switzerland. It was my second time in the gorgeous country and I was so happy to introduce him to all the indulgent and memorable food I had remembered from my travels there several years prior. The interesting thing about Swiss cuisine is that it is so diverse, drawing heavy influences from its surrounding countries of France, Italy, and Germany. My first time there, I was pleasantly surprised to find such an abundance of amazing pizzas, pastas, and fresh seafood. And of course, there is the chocolate! In addition to all this, Swiss cuisine can be characterized as extremely rich and dairy and meat focused, relying on its abundance of farmland.
Soon upon our return home, my husband surprised me with one of the best gifts I could have ever asked for – an all day intensive course at the Culinary Institute of America in Hyde Park, NY. The class? Swiss Cuisine! The CIA was always a special place for me, as, in addition to being a wannabe culinary student, I’d visit the campus and the rest of the lovely town of Hyde Park as a child often. To actually be in one of the professional kitchens where chefs and students worked and learned every day? It was an absolute dream!
I didn’t realize until I was in the midst of chopping, stirring, and sweating over the cooktops how utterly different it would be from my humble home kitchen. I would also learn fast that I knew very little about how a real kitchen really worked. Within the first five minutes, I sliced my finger terribly on the super-sharp knife, and within the last ten minutes, I took a steaming hot pan of creamy polenta out of the oven without a mitt for some reason and burned my entire hand badly. At the end, I was completely exhausted and properly beaten, but proud of what I had learned. Me, the semi-vegetarian, de-boning a smoked pork knuckle!
It was a special day exactly ten years later, when I was able to take my son to the CIA while visiting family nearby. Since moving to the South, I hadn’t been back for a decade and missed it so much! We toured the campus and several of the learning kitchens, and a culinary student was nice enough to give Aidan his own toque! Aidan had just gotten interested in cooking at home with me, and it was a lovely full-circle moment for me!
Whenever I think about the CIA and my inspiring time there ten years ago at the Swiss cuisine course, I always associate it with the creamy, rich, cheesy luscious polenta I made that day. I had never had polenta before, and didn’t know what I was missing until I whipped it up that day with flavorful broth, Gruyere, and seasonings. Fluffy, succulent, intense, and comforting, polenta soon became one of my favorite starches to make. Although it mostly connotes richness and can be heavy, I also like to lighten it up.
I decided to experiment with it using one of my other absolute favorite ingredients of all time – tomatillos. I could write a novel on how much I love tomatillos – a fruit that looks like a green tomato but it not a tomato at all, and is the main component of salsa verde. Tomatillos are tart, sharp, refreshing, and dynamic! What if I paired creamy polenta with these contrasting characteristics?
The result is my sort of “tex mex-ish” take on shrimp and grits. Grits and polenta are similar in that they are both ground cornmeal; they are just a different coarseness. Polenta is much more fine. Charring the tomatillos and adding the heated pop of jalapenos create depth of flavor and sweety tartness that contrast sharply and intriguingly deliciously. If you’ve never cooked with tomatillos or polenta, or both....you’ve got to give it a try! I know you’ll fall in love with both ingredients as much as I did.
Shrimp and Polenta with Charred Tomatillo Salsa Verde
- One pound raw shrimp, shelled and deveined
- 2 tablespoons olive oil, divided
- 1/2 cup chopped onion
- 2 teaspoons sugar
- 1/4 teaspoon ground cumin
- 1/4 teaspoon crushed red pepper
- One clove garlic, minced
- 8 ounces tomatillos, coarsely chopped (about 4-5)
- 1 jalapeño pepper, seeded and chopped
- 1 tablespoon fresh lime juice
- 1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro (optional)
- Salt and pepper, to taste
- One cup (dry) instant polenta
1) Set oven broiler to high. Place chopped onion, tomatillos, garlic, and jalapeno on stoneware or baking sheet and lay in a single layer. You may drizzle a bit of olive oil on top and gently toss. Place under broiler for approximately 10 minutes, or until vegetables became nicely charred, but just before the point of being burned. Don’t be afraid to get some nice blackening on them! This is what makes them flavorful. Let cool slightly.
2) Place vegetables from baking sheet and whatever juices have accumulated into blender. Add cumin, sugar, red pepper flakes, salt, pepper, and lime juice. Pulse in blender until the consistency of a chunky salsa. Adjust to taste (you may want to add a little more sugar to balance the tartness of the tomatillos).
3) Heat remaining tablespoon of olive oil in skillet on medium high heat. Cook shrimp about 5 minutes, until cooked through and pink, stirring constantly. Lower heat to a simmer and pour tomatillo mixture from blender into skillet.
4) In the meantime, cook instant polenta according to package instructions. Heavily season your cooking water with salt – it needs it! While adding polenta, add more salt, then season to taste with pepper.
5) Serve shrimp-tomatillo sauce over polenta. Sprinkle fresh cilantro on top if desired. Enjoy!
This tomatillo sauce also works great with chicken breasts! To make, swap out the shrimp with boneless, skinless chicken breasts and pour the sauce on top. Pairs wonderfully with some Spanish rice and a dollop of sour cream!