Creamy Polenta, or Cinderella goes to the ball
Which is why I think of certain foods as food for two, and others as food for company. Soft, steamy, piping hot polenta only really acquires an exquisitely tender texture when slowly cooked to a cohesive mass over upwards of an hour, so I'd always thought of it as food for two until as of late, preferring to serve wedges of fried, griddled or roasted polenta (which, save the frying, griddling or roasting, can be prepared as early as the day before) when feeding a crowd. For I've since learnt from Judy Rodgers' The Zuni Cafe Cookbook that soft polenta actually holds very well in a covered double boiler set over gently simmering water for a few hours, which is incredibly convenient if you're planning to serve the polenta as part of a multi-course meal. In fact, the holding period (anywhere from 30 minutes to 3 hours) actually improves the stuff, giving the polenta meal time to swell and fluff even more.
As much as I adore the soothing austere simplicity of polenta made with nothing but cornmeal, salt and water or stock, perhaps enriched with a little butter and parmesan at the end, I must say I am very partial to Venetian-style milk polenta (for anyone who's interested, Marcella Hazan gives a fabulous recipe for polenta alla Veneziana con il latte in Marcella Cucina). Typically rustic and hearty, here polenta takes on a delicacy and refinement of taste and texture by being cooked in a mixture of milk and water. It's enough to make an all-round polentoni - "polenta eater", as dwellers of the Italian south are fond of calling those in the north - out of the most stubborn; prior to tasting milk polenta, W would only ever eat the aforementioned fried, griddled or roasted firm variants.
Polenta is often treated as a Cinderella food of sorts, never allowed to the ball in the best frock, typically served as nothing but a foil to some stew or braise, a medium for sopping up those savoury juices. Milk polenta, however, as much as it dutifully fulfils its role as carrier of meat jus, doesn't merely play second fiddle to any meat you may care to serve with it - however outstanding the meat, I daresay for once, the supporting starch is so moreish as to threaten to outshine (just, but not quite) the ostensible main dish. If I sound like I'm raving, than it's because I've yet to encounter an equal partnership where two halves made up such a greater whole.
Flipping through my copy of Scott Conant's New Italian Cooking recently, I chanced upon his über-luxe take on milk polenta. In his Creamy Polenta recipe, cornmeal is cooked in a mixture of cream and milk. The rich dairy liquid medium, high ratio of liquid to meal (6 to 1, or 2 cups of cream plus 2 cups of milk to 2/3 cup of cornmeal), and slow patient cooking (1 hour and 45 minutes over the merest possible heat) ensure a luscious polenta with the velvety texture of custard that's truly unlike any other. And despite the extravagant use of cream and milk, it doesn't feel in the least bit heavy or stodgy. In fact, quite the opposite - if you can imagine ethereal being applied as a description of something with as sustaining an image as polenta, this is the candidate. So good it is made this way, I actually found it unnecessary to add the butter and parmesan at the end as specified in the recipe, which is unusual for me, because I am not one to hold back on the butter and parmesan.
We had some friends over for dinner last Friday. The Creamy Polenta (which I made in the early evening and held in a double boiler till it was time for the main course) was part of the following menu:
Slipper Lobster & Morel Risotto
This was inspired by a lobster and black truffle risotto from Christian Delouvrier's Mastering Simplicity. The arborio rice is cooked in lobster nage and finished with morel duxelles (which I made with dried morels, ceps and truffle oil) and chunks of butter-poached slipper lobster.
The thyme and juniper berry-scented chestnut soup recipe comes from Tamasin's Kitchen Bible by Tamasin Day-Lewis. As I had used duck stock for the soup base, I thought some tortellini stuffed with shredded roast duck and a mousse of foie gras (I happened to have some pate de foie gras in my fridge which I put to this use) would make for a good garnish.
A tartly refreshing breather between fairly rich courses. I used the smaller yellow-fleshed limes known as calamansi rather than the golf ball-sized key limes as I like the aromatic intensity of the former. The recipe, which incorporates egg white to stabilise the sorbet mixture, is adapted from Caroline Liddell and Robin Weir's wonderful book, Frozen Desserts.
Creamy Polenta with Daube de Queue de Boeuf
The oxtail daube is from Paula Wolfert's magnificent book, The Cooking of Southwest France. Although I already own a previous edition of this definitive culinary classic published by Grub Street in 1997 (which was first published in 1983), this 2005 edition is so extensively and completely updated it's, to me, practically an altogether new book - I had to have it, that much was clear. Meaty chunks of oxtail are braised in red wine and the other usual aromatic suspects in a closed pot with the heat controlled such that the liquid barely shudders, let alone come to a boil. A good 5 hours later, the meat emerges meltingly fall-apart, eat-with-a-spoon tender. Gelatine-rich salt pork and a pork trotter (which are fished out mid-way through cooking, processed to a paste, and smeared atop the oxtail pieces before proceeding with the rest of the cooking) are added to the cocotte - preferably enamelled cast iron - to surrender their sticky, lip-smacking quality to the sauce.
From Thomas Keller's Bouchon, where M.Vrinat's Taillevent version is cited as the ultimate model Marquise. The mousse, which is so rich and thick it can be unmoulded and sliced, is served with a vanilla scented custard sauce and toasted pistachios.