Thursday, August 11, 2011

Polenta with Red Beans and Coconut

Today was a day off, I'm working all weekend, and a quick look at the cafeteria menu on the hospital's Intranet told me that this would be a bad weekend for a vegetarian to be at their mercy during her 30-minute lunch break.  Since the next best thing I could think of that doesn't involve cooking would be to venture out into the 100-degree weather to pick something up from the Chinese restaurant half a block away, I figured it would be best to cook enough today to last until Tuesday (my next day off).

I wish I could claim this as my own recipe, but alas...I used to make this a few times a year using the recipe from my Haitian cookbook, A Taste of Haiti (reference below).  I kinda got away from using this cookbook because meat recipes figure more prominently in it than veggies, and most of the veggie side dish recipes are for plantains and sweet potatoes.  I love both, mind you, but I can't eat them all the time.  However, I recently replayed the spinach praram sans sweet potatoes and found myself with half a can of coconut milk left over.  What to do, what to do?  Ah yes, the old coconut polenta with kidney beans recipe...

Before I give you the polenta recipe, I'm going to first provide the recipe for the Haitian ground "spice" mix that's needed at the very beginning.  I had hoped to be able to multi-task and save time by making the Zepis while everything else was getting started, but really do need it first.  Here's that recipe along with some other suggestions (since this recipe makes a lot more than you'll need for the polenta):

Zepis (Haitian ground spice mix):
1 garlic head, peeled (or use 20-25 cloves of chopped garlic from a jar if you're too impatient to peel garlic)
2 green bell peppers
2 onions (or one big onion)
3-5 scallions
3 cilantro sprigs
10 parsley sprigs
1 cup of white vinegar (my preference; book says you can also use 1/2 cup oil or 1/2 cup water)

Combine all ingredients in blender or food processor and place in a jar (or two if they're small).  Keep refrigerated. 

Suggestions: this is very similar to the sofrito sauce that I made for the pigeon pea soup last summer; just add some chopped tomatoes and a few shakes of hot sauce (I like the Yucateco green habanero sauce because it adds more heat and less vinegar).  Zepis also has some potential as a marinade for meats and veggies, and the addition of some hot peppers (or that green habanero sauce) would make it into a delicious Mexican restaurant-style salsa verde.

The recipe book offers up a traditional, time-consuming version, involving dry beans and a whole coconut that you shred yourself, as well as a quick version using coconut milk and canned kidney beans.  Since their recipe calls for a whole can of coconut milk and two cans of kidney beans, I bought one can of kidney beans at the Pig this morning and made a half-batch for lunch:

Polenta with Red Beans and Coconut:
1 tbsp canola oil
1/4 cup Zepis (Haitian ground "spice" mix; see recipe below)
1 can red kidney beans, drained
1/2 can of coconut milk
2 whole cloves
1/2 cup plain yellow cornmeal
2 teaspoons salt, or to taste

Heat the oil, add the zepis and saute for 5 minutes on medium heat.  Stir in the beans and cook for another 5 minutes.  Add the coconut milk and cloves and cook for another 5 minutes.  Add 1.5 cups of water and bring mixture to a boil.  Add cornmeal slowly, stirring carefully to avoid clumps (or mash them out if they start forming) and then add salt.  Reduce heat to low and cover.  Cook for 25 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.

I served this up with a simple, Caribbean-inspired take on a familiar side dish here in the South:

Okra and tomatoes:
1 tbsp canola oil
1 pound of frozen okra, thawed
2 tsp garam masala
1 tsp salt
1/2 tsp cayenne pepper or to taste
4 oz tomato sauce

Heat the oil in a saucepan over medium heat.  Add okra and spices and cook until okra seems less sticky and/or is starting to brown.  Add tomato sauce and cook until mixture is heated through.

As you can see in the picture, the polenta doesn't hold its shape very well.  If you're concerned about space on the plate and/or don't want to have the huge quantity that I was ready for by the time it was done, consider serving it in a ramekin or a small side dish bowl.  Despite the mushy presentation, it turned out as well as the last time I made it a couple of years ago!  Try it - dishes from spicy regions like the Caribbean are a wonderful change from the ordinary in the summertime.

Stay tuned to find out what I made for dinner (and other weekend leftovers)...

Recipes from:
Yurnet-Thomas, Mirta.  A Taste of Haiti.  New York: Hippocrene, 2002.  ISBN 0-7818-0998-3


  1. you are awesome!!! love this..i wrote on my blog years ago about my Haitian grandmother making polenta with red beans, and look where i find it!!! however, my grandma usually doesn't use coconut (I'm assuming because of the region she was brought up in or maybe taste preference)

  2. Thanks, I'm glad you liked it! I believe that red beans and polenta without the coconut is another dish called Thiaka in Creole. The cookbook I found this recipe in has one for that, too.