I was standing over the bag of cornmeal polenta I’d bought from the bulk bins at my local Whole Foods thinking, “Maybe I should do Mark Bittman’s method instead…”
His stove top version of polenta seemed safer – mostly because it would be right there in front of me. I could stir it when I desired. Add more milk if it became too dense. Turn down the heat if it seemed to be cooking too fast. Turn it up if it wasn’t cooking fast enough.
I could control the situation.
I like control.
But the name of the LA Times recipe kept ribboning through my head, challenging me to be better. “Perfect baked polenta,” it read, beckoning me like the chocolate covered almonds in my cabinet that I can’t eat for another 32 days since I am a crazy person who makes irrational decisions like giving up dessert for Lent.
“Perfect,” I repeated.
As much as I like control, perfection is even more appealing.
So I did what Russ Parsons told me to do (except I cut down the recipe). I mixed ¾ cup of polenta with 3 ½ cups of water, a pat of butter, and some salt. I put it in my 350 degree oven for an hour and half – stirring only once at the hour and twenty minute mark (as instructed). I removed it from the oven, added some milk because it seemed a little dry, and then peppered it with parmesan cheese.
And then I stared on in helpless horror as the polenta seized up into a hard lumpy, yellow swamp. (Update: I have received word that reducing the recipe requires reducing the baking time as well. My "imperfect" polenta was baked twice as long as necessary!)
“It looks just like the polenta from the tube.” My friend Ashley observed – she was joining me for dinner that evening.
“But it’s not supposed to be like the tube version – it’s supposed to be perfect!” I sputtered. “I should have listened to Mark Bittman…”
She shrugged. “It’ll still be good with the mushrooms.”
Or, more accurately, the mushroom ragu would be good – by itself. So good that it felt a shame to plate it on such an arid landscape. So good that I eagerly saved the leftovers just to see how much better they would be with the right companion.
A companion I could cook on the stove top. A companion that requires constant love, attention and compulsive stirring. A companion that is never dry.
The end result was just as I imagined it would be...
Wild Mushroom Sauce w/ Risotto
Wild Mushroom Sauce
Recipe adapted from LA Times
½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms
2 cups hot water
2 garlic cloves, peeled and cut in half
1 pound fresh mushrooms, quartered (I used shiitakes, portabella, button)
1 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons minced onion or shallot
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon minced rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped parsley
2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar (original recipe calls for red wine vinegar)
In a medium bowl, cover the dried mushrooms with hot water and set aside to soak until rehydrated, at least 30 minutes.
In a large skillet, heat the olive oil with the split cloves of garlic and cook over medium-high heat until the garlic begins to brown on all sides, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the fresh mushrooms and the salt and cook, stirring until the mushrooms give off their liquid, about 10 minutes. If the garlic begins to scorch, remove and discard it.
While the fresh mushrooms are cooking, lift the dried mushrooms from the soaking liquid with your hand, reserving the soaking liquid. Squeeze the mushrooms dry, draining the liquid back into the bowl and reserving it. Chop the dried mushrooms coarsely. Add to the cooked fresh mushrooms. Decant the soaking liquid through a strainer into a measuring cup, tilting it and pouring slowly to leave behind any grit in the bottom of the bowl. You should have 1 1/2 to 2 cups.
Add the minced onion and increase the heat to high, until the mushrooms are nearly dry, 3 to 5 minutes. Add the white wine and cook until that evaporates, another 5 minutes.
Reduce the temperature to medium and stir in the tomato paste. Cook, stirring, until the paste is mixed in and has begun to toast, darkening and losing its raw smell, about 3 minutes. Add 1 1/2 cups of the strained soaking liquid and gently simmer over medium-low heat until the mushrooms are silky and the juices are thickened and creamy, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Any extra mushroom broth can be refrigerated, tightly covered, and added to soup.
Stir in the rosemary and parsley. Taste and add just enough red wine vinegar (again, I used balsamic vinegar) to give the sauce depth. Add more salt if necessary. Keep warm until ready to serve.
Spoon over risotto and top with parmesan. (See recipe for risotto below)
Serves 2 (recipe easily doubles)
1/2 cup Arborio rice
3/4 cup yellow onion, chopped
1/2 cup white wine
2 cups chicken broth (I combined 2 teaspoons Better Than Boullioun chicken base w/ 2 cup water)
¼ cup Parmesan cheese
Salt, pepper to taste
Combine white wine and chicken broth in a small saucepan and bring to a slow boil.
Meanwhile, heat a heavy pan over medium-high heat and sauté onion in a little olive oil until browned and slightly caramelized (approximately 10 minutes). I like to get a little char on the onion to give the risotto more color. Reduce the heat, add the rice, and stir until the edges of the rice turn translucent. Add some of the hot chicken broth/white wine mixture and season with pepper to taste.
Continue adding the warm broth/wine little by little, stirring occasionally, as it is absorbed. The rice should simmer at a slow boil until it reaches a slightly stiff consistency. Stir in the parmesan and serve immediately.