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Wednesday, March 16, 2011

Polenta and Polonaise

Polenta is becoming more familiar to mainstream American eaters; many years ago, I first encountered it in this sort of log-shaped container, like Jimmy Dean's loose sausage or a one-pound bullet of ground beef. The polenta was this sort of gelatinous, textured mass that wasn't particularly good. My mother and father didn't really know what to do with it, whether to fry it or grill it or bake it... so my first memory of polenta is of a gritty corn burger. Not the most appetizing thing.

It was many years until I returned to eating polenta, and that at the hands of my culinary school instructors, who showed me the proper method to create smooth, dense porridge that we solidified in the cooler, cut, breaded, and deep fried; then, I was taught how to make it creamy, a mashed-potato substitute that makes a delightful base for braised meat.

Miss Kagashi à la Polonaise
I have a particular fondness for mushrooms in my polenta. I don't know why, exactly, but the flavors just work for me. At the feast, we used a mushroom polenta as the base on which the braised short rib could sit.

A Polonaise is a kind of dress, and a dance. Indeed, "à la Polonaise" refers to any item done in a Polish style. In this instance, it refers to a preparation put on vegetables, a mixture of breadcrumbs sautéed in butter, hard-boiled eggs, parsley, salt, and pepper. It's simple and easy, and a little bit goes a long way to make the brassica family of vegetables edible. (Editor's note: Aaron doesn't like broccoli and cauliflower.) Any vegetable with nooks and crannies in the edible portion is suitable for service with a Polonaise; the little morsels of breakfasty goodness get caught in the florets of broccoli and cauliflower, and make them into a delightful and classical dish that presents with a surprising amount of flavor.

Creamy Mushroom Polenta
1 oz (30 ml) Vegetable Oil
1 tbsp (15 ml) Minced Shallot
6 oz (170 g) Button Mushrooms, sliced
2 cups (473 ml) Medium Ground Cornmeal
8 cups (1.9 L) Chicken Stock or Water
1 quart (946 ml) Heavy Cream
Grated Parmesan
Black Pepper

1. Heat oil in a a saucepan large enough to hold all the cornmeal and stock or water. Sauté shallot and mushrooms until slightly softened.
2. Make a slurry by mixing about 2-3 cups (473-709 ml) of the chicken stock or water with the cornmeal; bring the rest to a boil in the saucepan. When it has come to a boil, add the slurry, stirring constantly so that no lumps form.
3. Reduce to a simmer, and stir to cook the polenta until it is smooth, roughly 45 minutes.
(At this point, you may cool the polenta and store it for re-heating later.)
4. Add cream and stir well. Add parmesan cheese to taste, and season with salt and pepper.
Yield: roughly 8-10 cups (2 L.)

8 oz (227 g) Butter
1 qt (947 ml) breadcrumbs
1 1/2 tbsp. (22.5 ml) parsley, finely chopped
2 hard-boiled eggs, finely chopped

1/2 tsp. (2.5 ml) salt
1/8 tsp. (.625 ml) white pepper
1 pinch nutmeg

1. Melt butter in a non-stick sauté pan. Add breadcrumbs and sauté until the butter is absorbed.
2. Add all other ingredients, stir to mix well, sauté 1-2 minutes.
3. Store for later use.
Yield: 1 quart (just under 1 L)

When preparing your vegetables, cut them into small florets; heat them in your preferred method, and place in a sauté pan with a bit of butter, oil, or stock. Add a handful of polonaise for every portion of vegetables, sauté a few minutes, and serve.

It's always nice to have some side dishes that everyone enjoys. Polenta and Polonaise are two that seem to go over well with a wide variety of people.

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