Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Smoked Chicken with a Stack of Polenta, Spinach, Ricotta, Pancetta and a Parmesan Crisp Paired with a 2006 Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc

I am excited about writing this post because not only did the food and wine make for a wonderful evening, but I finally took a big step to overcoming my lighting challenges with food photography.  I won’t bore you with all the photo geeky details, but I came up with a DIY solution for lighting and a diffuser/reflector that involved a bunch of PVC pipe, a couple of halogen work lamps, a couple of sheets and a half dozen spring clamps.  I will be writing more about the details on my photography blog (Craig Corl Photography) soon and post a link to the article in case you are like me and find this interesting.

2006 Baron Herzog Chenic Blanc with smoke chiecken polenta and Pancetta-1

But for now, on with the food and wine!  This little event (dinner for eight) took place at our weekend getaway on the Potomac River affectionately known as the Crab Shack.  The Crab Shack is Chef Sue’s favorite place to cook.  Often it seems that our entire purpose for going to the Crab Shack is so Chef Sue can engage in weekend long cooking therapy.  For me, not a bad deal.  This meal was no exception for Chef Sue – she totally rocked it.  And my wine pairing was a nice addition.

The Food

I love food in the smoker.  I love ribs, chicken, veggies, fish, you name it.  For this meal, Chef Sue decided on chicken breasts and thighs smoked with hickory chips.  The beauty of smoking chicken (or anything else) is not only the intense smoky flavors it produces, but the chicken is wonderfully juicy and tender – and for us photographers, it takes on a wonderfully rich color.

Smoked Chicken

To accompany the smoked chicken, Chef Sue went over the top.  She started with home made polenta and home made ricotta.  To this she added some sautéed baby spinach, a touch of rendered pancetta, and a parmesan crisp for a bit of cheesy goodness and a nice contrasting texture.

Polenta spinach ricotta and pancetta

In combination, the two features on the plate highlighted flavors of smoke on the part of the chicken that felt much like the oak flavors in a Chardonnay, with the contrasting creamy warm flavors of the wonderful blend of polenta, spinach, ricotta and pancetta.  Visually, the pair appeared as co-stars.  But from the flavor perspective, the smoked chicken demanded attention while the polenta stack played a beautiful second chair.

The Wine

There are a number wines that could have been paired with this including a big oaked Chardonnay (playing off the smoked chicken), a Pinot Noir, or even a Merlot.  I chose a 2006 Baron Herzog Clarksburg Chenin Blanc.  At $10, this wine is not expensive yet has some surprisingly pleasant flavors.  The first thing you notice is the fruit – melon and apple dominate this pleasantly dry wine with a mild finish.  This is a wine that should be enjoyed in its youth (1 to 3 years) to feature the fullness of the fresh, crisp fruit flavors, but at 5 years, the fruit is a bit more subdued, and a subtle note of honey emerges.

2006 Baron Herzog Chenin Blanc

Chenin Blanc is a workhorse among grapes.  It is very versatile and is used in a number of applications.  I would not overlook this fine little grape, particularly as vineyards and winemakers continue to improve the quality of Chenin Blanc based wines.

The Pairing

The crowd of judges were all pleased with the pairing.  Describing the pairing and why it worked is quite simple.  The fruit and honey undertones were analogous to adding a few pieces of diced fruit (say a mild apple or some melon) to a salad.  Without the fruit, the salad is fine, but with the fruit, it is something different.  As is the case with our fruit in salad analogy, the wine did not play a star role.  The domination of the chicken was nicely contrasted with the apple, melon, and honey of the wine.

2006 Baron Herzog Chenic Blanc with smoke chiecken polenta and Pancetta

This was not a pairing that was greater than the sum of it’s parts.  It was more like exactly the sum of it’s parts…and everyone agreed it was a very enjoyable pairing.

Final Words

This pairing was successful.  It should also be noted it was a successful pairing on a budget.  With the exception of the baby spinach and the pancetta, all the ingredients, including the wine, were budget conscious items. 

I also want to take a moment and sing the praises of home made polenta.  It was only recently I came to realize I like polenta.  This realization came when Chef Sue decided to make polenta from scratch (no worries, easy stuff – see the directions below).  There is no relationship between home made polenta and the crap that comes in a tube in the grocery.  Try home made.  You will like it!

My last comment is advocating home made ricotta.  Chef Sue makes here own cheese.  Ricotta made in your own kitchen completely outclasses the store bought, plastic wrapped, homogenized, sterilized, ionized, and relatively flavorless ricotta.  If you have not considered making your own cheese, you should.  It is surprisingly easy, fun, and delicious.


Smoked Chicken

The challenge with smoking chicken is, well, having a smoker.  If you don’t have a smoker, search the web – there are plenty of DIY alternatives to make it happen.  The key is low temp for a long time.  For the thighs and breasts prepared for this pairing, we used hickory chips, 275 degrees, and three hours.

Polenta, Spinach and Ricotta Stack

  • 1 cup cornmeal
  • 3 cups milk
  • 1 oz. finely grated parmesan cheese
  • 1 pound of spinach sautéed in olive oil and 1/2 teaspoon of garlic (add 1 tablespoon of balsamic vinegar at the end
  • 16 oz. ricotta
  • Small package of pancetta (rendered on high heat for about 5 minutes – drain fat)
  • 8 teaspoons of finely grated parmesan (make 8 small mounds on a sheet pan lined with parchment - bake in over at 400 until parmesan just begins to turn brown) - there you have it - parmesan crisps.

Bring milk to a simmer and stir constantly while adding the cornmeal. When all the cornmeal is incorporated and swimming happily it will begin to thicken. As it thickens, add 1 oz of finely grated parmesan cheese. Remove from heat and scoop onto a sheet pan covered with parchment – spread evenly to about 3/8 – 1/2 inch thickness. Like Norwegians running from the sauna to the snow, place the warm polenta in the fridge to harden for about 1/2 hour (or you can wait until tomorrow). Once hardened, cut in to 2" x 2" squares.

Pan fry polenta in butter until one side is browned - about 5 min. Flip and add sautéed spinach, 2 tablespoons of ricotta, then put lid on pan to melt the ricotta (just slightly). Pan fry until bottom is crispy.
Garnish with parmesan crisp and rendered pancetta.

In vino veritas, buen provecho.



  1. Oh my! I enjoyed the evening so very much and now I get to relive it through the pictures and the telling. :) Chef Sue is an amazing woman. I will be taking notes. Someday....SOMEDAY...I'll be able to issue a throwdown. But not any time soon. I'm still learning. Thank you!!

  2. Disaster! Hope you can help. There is no way that one cup of milk will incorporate 3 cups of cornmeal. I tried it, tasted it, and tasted raw cornmeal. Added more milk, added water. Oops, failure, and I'm having company!
    And you call for 16 oz ricotta but only use 2T. I can surmise that this means for EACH polenta square.
    Something is wrong, and Im not sure what. HELP!

  3. I received janew's comment last night and responded as soon as I saw it. Whether it was the wine talking or I have early stages of dyslexia, I transposed the milk and cornmeal quantities for the polenta. You should bring 3 cups of milk to a simmer then gradually stir in one cup of cornmeal.

    My apologies to janew, and I hope you recovered in time for your guests.