I had my first experience of the Nickel Diner in downtown Los Angeles a few weeks ago, and you can bet I zeroed right in on the "Eggs Baked on Polenta with Spinach." My decision did not go unrewarded. In fact, I couldn't stop thinking about this dish and its divine trifecta of savory breakfast treats, even after I'd boarded my plane and flew home.
The creamy polenta was the first piece of the puzzle. I love Marcella Hazen's no-stir polenta: it makes creamy and tender polenta every time. I swapped my everyday cornmeal with a finer grind and added a generous helping of parmesan at the end with a splash of milk for extra creaminess. Perfect.
The spinach got thrown in a hot pan with some sautéed garlic and chile flakes. In less than five minutes, the spinach was wilted, bright green, and infused with garlic. This is actually one of my favorite ways to prepare spinach any night of the week, and I like using baby spinach for its tenderness and quick-cooking character.
I've made baked eggs en cocotte many times before, so I thought this part would be a snap. Crack and bake, baby. But, alas, the eggs proved the most challenging thing to get right. No matter what I did, the yolks dried out and hardened long before I felt like the whites were even close to being set.
Finally (and rather desperate), I remembered our trick for getting whites to set when frying eggs sunny side up: covering the egg in the last few minutes of cooking. Sure enough, this did the trick. I cooked the ramekins of egg, polenta, and spinach for 15 minutes and then tented the pan loosely with foil in the last 5 to set the whites before the yolks could over cook.
Finally! I sat down, dove my spoon through the soft yolk into the polenta below, and took my first bite. Just like how I remembered it. Nickel Diner, I salute you.
Nickel Diner, 524 S. Main Street, Los Angeles, CA 90013 // 213 623-8301
1 cup polenta or fine-ground cornmeal 1 teaspoon salt 1 cup loosely-packed parmesan cheese, plus extra for topping 1/2 cup whole milk 2 teaspoons olive oil 4 cloves garlic, minced Pinch red pepper flakes 10 ounces baby spinach 8 large eggs
Special equipment: 8 1-cup ramekins (See below for casserole version)
Bring 4 cups of water to a boil in a small saucepan over high heat. Whisk in the polenta and salt. Reduce heat to low, cover the pan, and simmer for 40-45 minutes. Stir the polenta vigorously every 10 minutes, being sure to scrape the bottom and sides of the pan and thoroughly mix the polenta.
When the polenta is done cooking, stir the parmesan and milk until the cheese is completely melted and the polenta is creamy. Cover the pan and set aside until needed.
Heat the oven to 375°F.
Warm the olive oil in a skillet over medium-high heat. Add the garlic and pepper flakes, and sauté until the garlic is golden and fragrant, about 1 minute. Stir in handfuls of the spinach, letting each handful wilt slightly before adding the next. Continue cooking the spinach until all the leaves have wilted and turned bright green. Remove the pan from heat.
To assemble the dishes, fill each ramekin half-full with polenta (roughly 1/2 cup polenta per ramekin; you may have some polenta left over). Divide the spinach evenly between the ramekins. Break one egg into each ramekin. Line a roasting pan or other oven-safe pan with a clean dishtowel and arrange the ramekins on top. Pour very hot water into the pan (tap water is fine), filling it to about halfway up the sides of the ramekins. The cloth will prevent the ramekins from sliding.
Bake for 15 minutes, then cover with aluminum foil and bake for another 5 minutes for runny yolks or 10 minutes for set yolks.
Carefully remove the ramekins from the water with oven mitts. Top each ramekin with extra parmesan cheese, and serve immediately.
• Do Ahead: Ramekins can be filled with polenta and spinach the day ahead. Cover and refrigerate until ready to bake. Crack the eggs over top just before baking and bake as usual.
• Casserole Version: You can also make this dish in an 8x8 square baking pan. Add enough polenta to come halfway up the sides of the pan and spread the spinach on top. Make eight wells in the spinach and crack one egg into each. Bake as directed. If the eggs on the outside are finished before the eggs in the center are set, cover with foil until all eggs are finished baking.