Monday, December 10, 2007

A Nice Little Lunch

I was finally able today to eat lunch the way I like to. I’m home, you see, and so I had access to my stove, my refrigerator, and the grocery store. Sadly, what I don’t have much access to is equipment. I have two skillets, one stock pot, and one mixing bowl (and that’s the one to the stand mixer) left unpacked. Also, I don’t have a ton of food in the house. We’re trying to keep shopping to a minimum to avoid having to move more than we already do (I believe the three containers of cocoa powder we currently have must have been mentioned four times to date, and not by me).

So I made a quick stop at the grocery store for fresh vegetables. Leeks and mushrooms sounded nice and fall-to-winterish, so I picked those up. In the cabinet I had part of a bag of polenta, so I thought that might be good with the vegetables.

Of course, with all but three cookbooks packed, I had no recipe for polenta. (And for the record, those three books are Marcella Hazan’s Italian Kitchen, Williams-Sonoma Entertaining, and The Art of Simple Food by Alice Waters, which it just occurs to me would have the ratio of liquid to polenta, but I didn’t think to look in it; it’s not that any of those books are so treasured and loved, it’s just that two of them were acquired after I packed all the other books, and one of them happened to be in an obscure place in the kitchen and was overlooked). Recipe? I can hear you rolling your eyes, You need a recipe for polenta? Come on, that’s lame. Well not a recipe, per se, I can just never remember how much liquid goes with how much polenta. The generally accepted answer is 3:1, it seems, based on the internet search I did.

And I’d like to wander off topic here for a second and talk about people who rate and comment on recipes on recipe sites. The polenta recipe was on, and it was for “polenta.” Not polenta with anything in it or on it, just polenta. Cornmeal, water, salt. People made comments like “it was bland,” and “it needed something more.” Um, duh? Anybody who reads cornmeal, water, salt, bring salted water to a boil, add corn meal and whisk until thickened and thinks that’s going to be exciting needs to turn over their spatulas right now. And one woman used what was clearly finely ground cornmeal, dumped it all into the water at once, and got a lumpy goopy mess. The recipe clearly states “coarsely ground cornmeal” although it does go on to say that fine cornmeal could be used. I’m always one to err on the side of caution with substitutions—I prefer to make a recipe exactly as written the first time, because my rationale is that that’s the method that was tested most rigorously. At the very least people who comment on recipe sites need to learn to spell. The herb is marjoram, not marjorim.

Sorry, that’s a subject about which I’ve always felt the need to vent. Back to lunch. I think I got the tenderest, least woody leek in all of North America. It may be a cliché to say I was able to cut it like it was softened butter, but that’s just what I did do. I rinsed it carefully (it was also the least sandy leek in North America, bless its heart), sliced it into little pale green rainbows, and sautéed it in ½ tablespoon of butter and a ½ tablespoon of olive oil until it was just starting to color. Then I slipped some sliced crimini mushrooms in with it, and let that all cook down.

But what, I thought, am I going to do to season this? I was vaguely reminded of a recipe of Amanda Hesser’s from her wonderful book The Cook and The Gardener: A Year of Recipes and Writings from the French Countryside. My husband got it for me for my birthday one year, and while I was disappointed at the time, I later read it through and found it to be delightful, full of good ideas, and very charming. In what I believe was a Fall recipe, she made creamed leeks on toast. And with creamed leeks on toast, could creamed mushrooms on toast be far behind? I think not. Only we have no bread in the house worthy of creamed-really-nice-fresh-vegetables-on-toast. But since I was already sold on polenta, this was something of a moot point anyway.

And in checking to confirm that I had heavy cream, and that it was still good, my attention was grabbed by the huge jar of Grey Poupon Dijon mustard in the refrigerator. I had been kicking myself, you see, for not buying any fresh thyme at the grocery store, because a thyme-scented creamy sauce is quite a heavenly thing, but one with a little jolt of Dijon would be just as good, I told myself.

I also noticed that there was even some white wine left over. This is so rare an occurrence in my household that I can count on one hand the number of times that’s probably happened. It’s like that old joke that went around the internet many years ago, offering the “real woman’s” response to certain “Martha Steweart-ish” housekeeping and cooking tips. The last one read: “Freeze leftover wine in ice cube trays, then empty into a plastic bag and keep frozen for use in cooking.” And the “real woman” response was “What leftover wine?” Ha! I resemble that remark! (But I confess I’ve always wanted to be the type who had things like stock, wine, and tomato paste frozen in my freezer for any need; and just think—a white wine ice cube would be perfect in a glass of warmish white wine. It wouldn’t dilute it!)

So with those ingredients at my elbow, I slugged a glug of white wine into the pan with the now-golden leeks and mushrooms, scraped up the brown bits (as they say), added a dollop of Dijon mustard, and poured a little heavy cream over the whole, stirred away for a minute or two, then turned my attention to the polenta.

I made the polenta in the usual way, except I made a half recipe (1 ½ cups of liquid to ½ cup of polenta), and I used half milk, half chicken broth. In retrospect, I might have upped the liquid just a tad. I found the resulting product to be just a shade on the crunchy side. To be fair, I did cook it up and then scarf it down, so it didn’t have any time at all to “rest.” Still, another ¼ to ½ cup of liquid wouldn’t have hurt. I also debated stirring blue cheese into the polenta, or draping a slice of it over top of the mushrooms and leeks, but abandoned this idea as being lily gilding.

I dished the polenta into my one remaining bowl, pulled out a spoon, and ate the whole thing in one sitting. This really is enough for two people, especially if it were a side dish. I didn’t even stop to take pictures of it, although there were two reasons for that. First, I didn’t have the camera (my husband has it with him). Second, it’s not a very photogenic dish. The sauce is kind of a grayish-brownish color, and while the polenta is a pretty yellow shade, it’s really just a bowl of undefined mush. However, here’s the recipe for my nice little lunch (which, because I used it in the dish, I did not have with a glass of wine; I had water instead).

Creamy Leeks and Mushrooms Over Polenta

½ tablespoon olive oil
1 tablespoon butter, divided
1 leek, cleaned and sliced crosswise
Approx. 1 dozen mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
Freshly ground pepper
¼ cup white wine
2 teaspoons Dijon mustard
3 tablespoons heavy cream
¾ cup chicken broth (or slightly more—1-2 tablespoons additional)
¾ cup milk (or slightly more—1-2 tablespoons additional)
½ cup polenta

Heat olive oil and ½ tablespoon butter in a skillet large enough to accommodate all vegetables comfortably. Sautee leeks for 3-5 minutes over medium heat until just starting to brown. Add mushrooms to leeks and cook down until mushrooms have released their liquid and are coloring nicely. I added salt and pepper to taste right after I added the mushrooms, although you could wait until after adding the mustard, since that may change the amount of seasoning required.

Add white wine to pan, stirring to deglaze. Add Dijon mustard and stir through vegetables. Pour cream into pan and stir to distribute. Do not let the mixture return to the boil after adding the cream.

Bring chicken broth and milk to the boil, add polenta in a slow stream and whisk until liquid is absorbed and polenta has reached desired consistency (I like mine somewhat dry). Add ½ tablespoon of butter to the polenta.

To serve, spoon leek and mushroom mixture over polenta.

This makes two side dish helpings, or one single serving for a somewhat piggish, but hungry, person.

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