Thursday, April 21, 2011

A bowl of comfort

There is nothing quite like April 15th to strike fear in the hearts of the self-employed and to induce a state of existential anxiety unlike any experienced before (unless you still recall the previous April 15th).  I wanted nothing more than comfort.  Writing a check with that many digits has a way of reducing me to a toothless, whimpering sub-human being...and I wanted to be soothed.  I also felt very much like a peasant, dependent on the land (read: pantry) and my ability to forage (read: find viable ingredients in the refrigerator) for sustenance.

Polenta has always been my first love when I look for comfort in the form of food.  Soft, creamy, buttery, gently granular (if you like your polenta coarsely ground), blanketed with an almost obscene quantity of freshly grated Parmesan, Piava, Romano or Asiago, and sometimes prepared with heavy cream for extra richness, I will dream about polenta on the astral plane long after I've lost my ability to sit up and take nourishment or to make coherent and logical sense.

So on this particular night, it was rich, creamy, buttery polenta.  And with the polenta was a mushroom ragout, rich with olive oil and fragrant with garlic, tomatoes and herbs.  And plenty of grated Piava cheese.  And to drink, the lovely, bright, raspberry-jammy and gloriously hibiscus blossom-hued Chateau St. Michelle Nellie's Garden Dry Rose 2007 (Columbia Valley, WA).  Silky, soft, and full of fruit, it was a great mid-spring wine to sip on the patio and then to provide inspiration for dinner.

Was I comforted?  Between the creamy polenta, the earthy, rich mushroom ragout and the refreshingly dry rose, you betcha.

Mushroom Ragout with Creamy Polenta

1/4 cup EVOO
1 lb. mushrooms, thickly sliced
1/2 cup finely chopped onion
3 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped fine
4 large Roma tomatoes, cored and roughly chopped with their juice (or use 1 cup canned San Marzano tomatoes with juice)
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
1/2 tsp. dried marjoram
1 tsp. dried basil
salt and freshly ground pepper to taste
1 cup dry red wine (or substitute sweet vermouth)
Creamy Polenta (recipe follows)
good quality virgin olive oil, for finishing
plenty of freshly grated cheese (such as Piava, Parmesan, Romano or Asiago)
freshly chopped flat-leaf parsley, for garnish

1.  Heat olive oil in a 4 quart pot over medium high heat until rippling.
2.  Add mushrooms and brown all over, stirring occasionally.
3.  Add onion and garlic, stirring frequently, until coated well with olive oil, being careful not to brown garlic, reducing heat if necessary.
4.  Add tomatoes and their juice, oregano, marjoram and basil.  Stir well and add salt and pepper to taste. 
5.  Bring to boiling, add red wine and return to boil, then reduce to a simmer for about 30 minutes while you prepare polenta.  Volume of the ragout should reduce by half and sauce should thicken.

Creamy Polenta:  Polenta usually comes in a package with directions for preparation.  That's a good starting place.  In general, the ratio of water to polenta is 3 to 1.  Add plenty of butter and salt to the water.  Be sure to pour the dry polenta in a steady stream into the boiling water, stirring well to break up lumps (I will often use a large whisk).  I like to increase the water to polenta ratio to 4 to 1 for a creamier consistency (sometimes substituting up to 1 cup of heavy cream or half and half for the 4th cup of water), stir a few times and then reduce the heat to very low, cover and let it sit because I'm lazy.  I stir a few times while I'm doing other things and then serve with plenty of grated cheese and freshly ground black pepper.  I also prefer coarsely ground polenta for its texture in most cases, but when I want comfort, I choose the finer grain.

To serve ragout and polenta, place a generous amount of polenta in a large soup plate.  Cover with plenty of mushroom ragout, drizzle with the olive oil of your choice and generously top with freshly grated cheese and chopped parsley.  Makes enough for 2 with leftovers.

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