Friday, January 26, 2007

Mushrooms, polenta, asparagus, oh my!

There are a few foods that cause a great divide amongst dining companions. Either you like the food or you don't and there doesn't ever seem to be much middle ground. Offal is an example. Salt and Vinegar chips seem to be another. Wild game, foie gras, and fish sauce also come to mind.

Mushrooms are part of the same club. Some people love them, some hate them. Count me with the lovers. The haters can enjoy their food fungus-free, I say shower me with mushrooms in every form.

This dish came together mainly because of the chilly, wet weather in Southern California recently. I wanted something hearty and warming, but not too rich (bikini season is never far away in this part of the world). Thick, meaty mushroom gravy over a unctuous bowl of polenta fit the bill. And a side of crisp, chilled asparagus hints at the spring that is just around the corner. This is a meal to convert the staunchest omnivore to a vegetarian....well, at least for a meal (and only if you use veggie stock in place of chicken stock).

Polenta with Mixed Mushroom Ragout -- serves 4 (with some leftover polenta)


--2 cups coarsely ground cornmeal (polenta)
--6 cups boiling water or stock (chicken or vegetable)
--pinch of salt
--pinch of thyme leaves
--splash of olive oil
--3 or 4 cloves garlic roughly chopped
--1 sweet onion, roughly chopped
--16 oz of mixed fresh mushrooms, chopped (I used a mix of baby bellas and white buttons)
--4-6 oz of dried mushrooms (or more) (I used porchini)
--2 cups chicken stock (I used homemade stock from the roast chicken a few posts back)
--salt and pepper to taste
--1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
--3 teaspoons corn starch


Timing is important here, because you want the polenta and mushrooms done at the same time. Two cooks may be necessary.

1) Pour the 2 cups of chicken stock into a large bowl containing the dried mushrooms. Let them soak and reconstitute for about 30 minutes.

2) Meanwhile, bring the water/stock to boil.

3) When you are ready to cook, pour the polenta slowly into the 6 cups of boiling water/stock. Add the salt and thyme. Turn the heat down and simmer, stirring regularly to keep from sticking, for 30 minutes. Add more water/stock if the mixture gets too thick to stir. Add a pat of butter or a glug of olive oil if you want it a little more luxurious. (One person needs to stay with the polenta and stir for the 30 minutes)

4) After the polenta has been added to the water, have the other cook (or your other arm, if you are coordinated and living alone) splash a bit of olive oil into a hot frying pan. Add the onions and garlic. Cook, stirring occasionally, for a few minutes.

5) Add the fresh mushrooms. Stir.

6) Add the reconstituted dried mushrooms and the 2 cups of chicken stock that they have been soaking in to the frying pan. Add the salt and the thyme. Keep mushroom mixture at simmer and stir it occasionally for about 20 minutes.

7) Make a corn starch slurry with the 3 teaspoons of corn starch and about 1/3 cup water. Stir the slurry into the mushroom mixture. Let cook, contining to stir, for about 5 minutes. If the mixture doesn't look thick enough to you, make more slurry and stir it in. Make sure to simmer a few minutes after adding the slurry to make sure to cook off the raw corn starch taste.

8) Add a final splash of liquid to the polenta if you like and stir it a final few times. (I like my polenta to be more porridge like, so I usually add a bit of water at the end). Then turn off the heat on both the polenta and the mushrooms.

To serve:

Plate the polenta for each person in a shallow bowl. Top with a few ladles of mushroom ragout.

Note: If you tire of eating the same meal as leftovers, assuming that you have anything leftover after this yummy dinner, note that the components of this dish are great served in lots of other ways. For example, leftover cooled polenta is delicious sliced into 1/2 inch thick pieces and lightly fried. Leftover mushroom ragout would be wonderful over egg noodles.

Chilled Asparagus -- serves 3 or 4 asparagus lovers


--3 bunches of the skinniest asparagus you can find, cleaned and trimmed
--pot of boiling water
--large bowl of ice and water
-- 2 tablespoons total of either soy sauce, rice vinegar, and rooster sauce
or lemon juice, olive oil, garlic, and salt (both are delicious)

1) drop asparagus into the boiling water
2) take out after 1 minute
3) drop immediately into bowl of ice and water and stir until asparagus is totally chilled
4) drain asparagus and mix with either a the soy sauce mixture or the lemon juice mixture, if you aren't ready to eat yet, put asparagus bowl into refrigerator to keep cold

To serve:

Place bowl in middle of table. Eat with fingers. Marvel at how the warm, rich polenta with mushrooms contrasts with the tangy, crisp asparagus.

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