Friday, March 11, 2011

Good foods and good company

I like to host parties, which explains my love for all sorts of holidays.  I treat Thansksgiving, Christmas, 4th of July, etc. as perfect excuses to invite a few friends, plan a menu and cook.  This makes the long stretch of winter after January 1st and before, well, before its warm enough to walk around with bare legs, rather difficult.  Recently though, I realized that I don't need a formal reason for a party and that the fact that its a long winter is reason enough.  So, on a lovely sunny Sunday afternoon a couple weeks ago I had a few girlfriends over for cocktails, a chat, and a few bites.  We drank lovely cocktails of Aperol, fresh grapefruit juice and cava, a bubbly variation on Pamplemousse - just bitter enough to not feel like brunch.  We ate hearty slices of braised beef with its sauce reduced and rich, a sort of tomato and meat jam, seared square of polenta topped with soft mushrooms and sharp cheese, some cheese and olives, including the wonderful Humboldt Fog, and gushy squishy Whoopie pies.  The food was hearty, as I don't believe in the notion of "girlie" food, the drinks cool and refreshing, the conversation flowed and we all enjoyed as the afternoon winter sun faded into the evening.  Maybe I can manage until it is warm enough for bare legs after all.

The polenta squares are really easy, especially if you use the oven method of cooking the polenta. I would recommend making it the evening before, so that it has time to set overnight.  Another way to serve this would be to top the hot, soft polenta with the mushroom ragu, to which I would add about a cup of tomato sauce or a 14 oz. can of tomatoes.  The most difficult part of Whoopie pies was finding marshmallow fluff, which I have never bought before and which was oddly sold out in my local Key Foods.  I used Gourmet's very good recipe, but did not bother measuring the fluff (have you seen how sticky it is!), and added an extra 1/2 stick of butter.  I also scaled back on the confectioners sugar to 1 cup.

Polenta squares with mushroom ragu
For polenta
2 cups of polenta, grits, or medium-grind corn (same thing, sometimes differently priced)
8 cups of water
2 tablespoons of olive oil to cook the polenta and another 4 for frying
2 teaspoons of salt

Pre-heat the oven to 350 degrees.  Mix the polenta, water, and 2 tablespoons of oil in a 9 x 13 baking dish or a medium pot.  Bake, uncovered, for about 1 hour and 2 minutes.  Stir in the salt and taste.  If the polenta is still a bit tough, add water if it looks dry and not all creamy, return to the oven for another 10 - 20 minutes.  At this point, you can either serve the polenta hot with the ragu or let it set and fry it.

Let the polenta cool fully and refrigerate for at least 6 - 8 hours or until firm.  Cut into 15 squares. Heat a non-stick pan over medium heat with a couple tablespoons of olive oil and fry the polenta squares for 5 minutes on each side or until golden brown and crusty.  By then the inside will warm through and get gushy and soft.  You may need to fry polenta in batches and keep the fried pieces warm in the oven.

For mushroom ragu
2 pounds of mixed mushrooms, such as creminis and shiitakes, rinsed, de-stemmed and caps sliced across
1/2 oz dried porcini mushrooms, rinsed well
1 medium yellow onion, chopped finely
3 garlic cloves, chopped finely
1 tablespoons tomato paste
2 teaspoons mixed herbs, such as rosemary, thyme, savory, or whatever you have
1/4 cup of wine
2 tablespoons chopped parsley
2-3 tablespoons butter
2 tablespoons olive oil
Salt and pepper to taste

Soak the porcini in 1 cup of water or stock until soft, about 15 - 20 minutes.  Chop the soft porcini finely and strain the liquid to remove any sediment.  Warm up a large skillet on medium heat and melt 1 - 2 tablespoons of butter and a bit of olive oil, then saute the mushrooms in 1 layer.  You may need to saute in batches to avoid overcrowding the pan and ending up with a soggy heap of steamed mushrooms.  Let them cook well and brown on each side, then flip.  Once all the mushrooms are sauteed, melt the remaining butter with another splash of olive oil and saute the onion until lightly golden. Add the garlic, the herbs, the tomato paste and a healthy pinch of salt, and cook for a few more minutes.  Deglaze the pan with wine and simmer until the wine almost evaporates, then add back the sauteed mushrooms, the porcini and their soaking liquid.  Bring to the boil, turn down to medium-low heat and simmer for another 20 minutes, or until most of the liquid has evaporated and the ragu has a soft, spoonable consistency, but holds its shape.  If you plan to serve it over soft polenta, add the tomatoes along with the porcini soaking liquid and simmer for 30 minutes.  Let the ragu cool slightly, season with salt and pepper, and stir in the parsley.

Spoon a generous tablespoon of ragu on to each polenta square and garnish with shaved parmesan.

Enjoy with a lovely pink cocktail and good company.


  1. ugh! why would you post this to me! i already didn't get to go. and now i have to read about the details!?

    do it again =)


  2. ugh I will be coming back with some crazy ideas as result of trip. The food here is quite different from anywhere else and the fact that I am eating the most weird things (per usual) does not help. I had veal brain in curry, which gave a thought of using the brain in risotto. The creaminess will go well with the risotto and a buttery flavor and well as smooth texture...just a thought from a lil sis