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Food critic Tonya Kuxhausen writes reviews of meals she prepares for herself at home. Food is at the center of each article but the whole dining experience is considered and commented on. To paraphrase Socrates, an unexamined meal is not worth eating.

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tasty polenta
Polenta with spicy eggplant sauce.

4 hearts

Let me eat cake!

It took special planning and trips to three grocery stores to find what I wanted for this dinner. Add the transportation hassles of the bus strike, the unexpected snow, sleepless nights and my statistics exam, and you know what kind of week it was. Why did I want to make polenta at 7 o'clock on Friday night? It turned out to be a lot of work.

First I put the sauce to cook - it was a mixture of canned and fresh tomatoes, lots of garlic, crushed red pepper, olive oil and red wine vinegar. I brought it to a boil, then added diced eggplant to simmer. I had cut the eggplant really nice to make it into small cubes. I was surprised at the volume in the pan and some of the cubes fell on the floor. This time, I threw them away. While that simmered I chopped the green pepper and gathered the ingredients for the polenta. I still had enough time that if the polenta didn't turn out, I'd be able to run to the store for the instant kind. I added the green pepper to the sauce and turned the heat down low.

The Menu (03-05-04)

Water crackers
Swiss cheese
Greek olive assortment
Mixed organic greens salad with Drew's Italian vinaigrette
Polenta with spicy eggplant sauce
Wine, and aperitifs
Vegan chocolate cake with non-vegan chocolate frosting
Decaf. coffee (for the boys)

I was hopeful about the polenta, but I suspected it might be harder than it sounds. After all, the recipe just said, "whisk until done." It was 45 minutes of whisking. First my left arm got tired, then my right. It was supposed to be the consistency of mashed potatoes, but it seemed to hover just between soup and thin paste. The directions were really vague. I gave up and took it off the stove. I added the butter and heaps of parmesan cheese and poured it into a pan to set, not knowing what would happen.

My friends showed up, I gave them a quick tour of the house and we opened the wine. Jenni brought a generous bottle of a cab/shiraz blend, which I was happy to see. My friend David, who was heavy-lidded and wan, said he'd have Sprite because he was taking cold medicine. I was disappointed that our bar was a little thin, and David's boyfriend, Paul, couldn't seem to make up his mind. He settled on caffeine-free Diet Coke with Bacardi. We ate the appetizers while sitting around the couch for a while. I felt like I was hogging the olives.

We filled our dinner plates in the kitchen, and I was relieved to see the polenta could be cut into squares. I dished up generous portions of it, let my friends add their own eggplant sauce, and adorned each plate with parsley. (See photo.) It smelled great. At the table, I worried about details. As I watched Paul cram some salad onto his plate, I realized I had forgotten to set out salad plates. No one else seemed to mind. Also, I had forgotten to buy bread.

I was pleased with the texture and flavor of the polenta, but I was disappointed that it was cold. The warm and spicy eggplant sauce didn't make up for that. The recipe said to let it cool, but this seemed too cool. I was the only one to complain. If you are ever going to make polenta, I highly recommend adding a ridiculous amount of parmesan cheese. It was delicious. Also, the sauce was quite good. The eggplant was tender but not mushy; the garlic and red pepper had a nice balance. I had used organic tomatoes, and their ripe and tangy flavor brought everything together. My friends seemed to like it.

Jenni, Paul and I passed the wine around, but David was in his own world. He kept leaving the table to sneeze or blow his nose (he had warned me he was sick), and I felt bad for him. He said he was feeling better. We talked about the weird art on the walls, Elmo, David's new job, Jenni's adorable, personified purse and the primary elections. Paul cracked witty one-liners and made himself laugh, over and over. It was entertaining for everyone when he laughed so hard he cried and gasped for air.

True to my upbringing, I immediately urged on dessert. I was happy my company shared this frame of mind. David had made his delicious vegan chocolate cake, and Paul had frosted it with a rich, creamy chocolate frosting. It was incredible. I was full, yet I wanted to eat the whole thing by myself. I don't know what the deal was, but at the time I felt like it was the best cake I'd ever had in my life. I was the first to get up for another piece, but we all ended up having half-pieces, and I didn't feel like such a pig. David and Paul had decaf coffee, Jenni and I continued with wine.

It was kind of an early night, but I was tired. David left some cake, and we said our good-byes. I insisted Jenni take the leftover wine; I had to study all weekend and my roommate is observing Lent, so she could be no help there. When I closed the door behind my friends, I felt a little like I wanted to go home with them. But I wrapped up the cake and washed the dishes. Then I unwrapped the cake and sat down with a fork!