Tuesday, February 14, 2006

Creamy Polenta, or Cinderella goes to the ball

When entertaining, I am a big believer in the practice of mise en place - preparing in advance all that withstands or even improves with being done ahead of time, thus freeing me up to focus properly on the tasks that must be performed to finish the dish in question come the actual dinner. In my case, because I know I'm incredibly slow, this planning process is absolutely critical if my guests are not to languish for too long between courses.

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.

Cream of Chestnut with Tortellini of Roast Duck & Foie Gras

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.

Calamansi Lime Sorbet

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.

Marquise au Chocolat, Crème Anglaise et Pistaches

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.

30 Comments:

Blogger Cathy said...

Jocelyn - it is all so wonderful, as usual. Your friends must eagerly await an invitation to dinner at your house! Did you have to make the risotto at the last minute or do you have a trick for holding that as well?

11:04 am, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Clare Eats said...

Why when ever it comes to leaving acomment here am I always at a loss for words. So many thoughts and none seem right. Your friends are truely lucky indeed!

12:29 pm, February 14, 2006  
Anonymous Su Lin said...

just discoverd your blog and have to say, that i like it very much! nice photography, may i ask, what camera do you use and how do you manage to take so nice decorated pictures while having guests? they must have been very patient :)

6:08 pm, February 14, 2006  
Blogger shaz said...

everything looks simply amazing. kudos to you J!

7:31 pm, February 14, 2006  
Anonymous Ivonne said...

Fantastic, J. Just fantastic!

How I would love to enjoy a Valentine's Day meal as you've prepared.

I had a marquise for dessert about a week ago but yours puts that one to shame.

As always, youru photography is tremendous.

Thank you for blogging and keep it up! It's a major highlight for so many of us ...

Happy Valentine's Day!

8:46 pm, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Nic said...

I had no idea that polenta could be held like that, J, not to mention that I've never had polenta made with a dairy base before. It certainly sounds delicious. And, as always, the presentation is fantastic.

9:10 pm, February 14, 2006  
Anonymous keiko said...

Joycelyn, it was definitely worth the wait, what a faaaantastic meal! As well as your gorgeous food, I fell in love with your glasses that hold the risotto... and the teapot! How beautiful. I know it's not something you can get anywhere, but could I ask where you got them from? I thought about Mathias when I saw the tea pot, I love their soap petals :) Did you like the marquise with his recipe? I've tried a few times with other recipes but I found all of them a little too rich...

9:36 pm, February 14, 2006  
Anonymous sha said...

say am jealous of your oxtail daube.
why cant the Greeks love this part of the meat?? groan!!

5 hrs.. good but never I have done this with added trotter to get the gelatin.


the idea of serving the risotto is wonderful
I go to the flea market every now and then and look for goblets.

Its pretty hard for me to take photos of my cooking when I have guests. I cant just say opps
PLS WAIT I NEED TO SHOT THAT FOOD ;-)

wonderful!!!

10:54 pm, February 14, 2006  
Blogger eatzycath said...

thanks for that take on polenta, always thought it to be fairly tasteless (I've probably tasted some really bad ones in the past) but you've certainly changed my mind enough for me to give it a try soon!

10:56 pm, February 14, 2006  
Blogger Ruth said...

J - what an awesome looking feast.

Every time I visit, I think "this is it - I'm sure no one can top it"....then YOU go and top yourself!!!

Thanks for sharing your thoughts, your meals and your photos.

11:16 pm, February 14, 2006  
Blogger J said...

hi cathy, thanks! sadly, when it comes to risotto, i have yet to meet a make-in-advance method that didn't result in a compromised texture and taste. so make it from scratch - and ply guests with more wine in the interim ;) - it is; although if everything (the stock, the soffrito etc) is prepped, i find it doesn't usually take more than 20-30 minutes

hi clare, thanks! you are always far too kind ;)

hi sulin, thanks! i use the nikon D70s

hi shaz, thanks!

hi ivonne, happy valentine's day! i had intended to make a straightforward chocolate mousse at first but somehow got distracted along the way ;)

hi nic, thanks for your kind words! that double boiler trick is a pretty nifty one, i must say. the dairy based version is rather unusual, but i am so glad i gave it a go!

hi keiko, thanks, you are far too kind! the polish glass coupes are from The Link Home in Singapore. the teapot is a mariage freres design - it also comes in a gorgeous small globular version and a cylindrical version. btw, i love the mathias rose soap petals too! (also, his divine creme de lait, hmmm) the marquise was indeed pretty rich; but served in fairly thin slices, it thankfully wasn't overwhelming

hi sha, thanks! i really adore oxtail - nary a month goes by in our home without some sort of oxtail stew or other popping up! i always cook extra pieces too, seeing as the stew does nothing but taste better with keeping...

hi cath, wei too was never a huge fan of soft polenta until i started making the dairy-rich versions - it really has to be tried to be believed ;)

hi ruth, thanks, but you are much too kind! very frankly, i am more a sucker for self-punishment than anything else ;)

11:44 pm, February 14, 2006  
Blogger MM said...

Happy V-day, J! Oh my, what a feast. I've never been a fan of polenta and always omitted it from my oxtail recipes but this dairy-rich one looks worth trying! I might even become a convert. Also, I have never added pork trotters to my oxtails for the added gelatine ... what a brilliant idea! As usual, I learn so much from you.

I second Keiko by saying I love the teapot. Gorgeous!

I really think you should run classes in Singapore. Or publish a cookbook. Be our very own Nigella. If you are, I'll be one of your 1st devotees.

1:34 am, February 15, 2006  
Blogger michelle said...

Hi J - and continuing from MM, I'll be your second devotee! ...or I might have to fight her for first position! You truly are amazing. How many cookbooks do you own, my dear? Everytime I read about your gorgeous food and you list all these different cookbooks, and then I become not only jealous of your cooking, but your cookbook collection as well!! Gorgeous presentation, and you and W have a wonderful Valentine's Day!

3:58 am, February 15, 2006  
Blogger Pille said...

Hi Jocelyn - I must repeat Ruth - every new post is full of even more impressive dishes and pictures than the previous ones, although one wouldn't think it's possible!
And yes, your cutlery and plates are utterly and enviably beautiful (says me, who has a choice between a whopping 2 dessert glasses:)

8:04 am, February 15, 2006  
Blogger *kel said...

Hi J, I followed the link from Greedy Goose's blog and landed on yours! I must say I really enjoy your writing and I just read the first month's archive. My, you have a really nice collection of cookbooks there!

8:05 pm, February 16, 2006  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jennifer,the pictures on your blog are just outstanding - such attention to detail. I love your use of colour and textures in your photographs, all of which never overshadow the food. Cooking must be a real labour of love for you. Thanks for taking the time to share your passion with us - I'm looking forward to your future postings!

Flora (a transplanted Singaporean in wintry Canada)

11:41 pm, February 16, 2006  
Anonymous Melissa said...

Okay, you've sold me on both the milk polenta and the revised Cooking of Southwest France. Speaking of both, have you tried Wolfert's recipe for oven-baked polenta? I wonder if it would be successful with the milk/water or milk/cream combo. I may just have to try it and let you know! Your dishes are stunning, like always, J. And like everyone else, I love that teapot!

12:01 am, February 17, 2006  
Blogger Vivilicious said...

Well, well Ms J., Nothing to add to the comments above really, except a big bravo! I recently discovered that adding mascarpone to a creamy polenta just makes this sometimes second cousin of the carb world that much more intersting. Plus a nice big handful of parmesan and plenty of black pepper. Just that and some nice sausages make a lovely (and rather caloric!) meal. I do admire how you manage to style everything so beautifully with guests around. They are a patient lot indeed (and oh so lucky!).

7:03 am, February 17, 2006  
Blogger cin said...

Wow, J, the effort you put into your meals just leaves me in awe.
I can only aspire to serving my guests such labour internsive meals one day. I'm looking forward to trying the polenta some time though. Thanks for the holding trick.

8:02 pm, February 17, 2006  
Blogger Eggy said...

I gotta tell ya: that dinner was nothing short of sublime. Nary a day has gone by since then that M hasn't thought of your polenta. So if you don't mind, i'm going to give it a go this weekend with some shortribs braised in red wine. I'll let you know how it turns out. And if I haven't mentioned it already, I'm loving the Earl Grey with blue flowers...even sans the posh tea pot :-)

10:42 pm, February 17, 2006  
Blogger Robs said...

Your attention to the details of your food are just amazing. Amazing because you can knock the socks of any one of the chefs I have worked with. Honestly, some of them can't even hold a candle to your food. I am in awe and admiration by your passion for your food. I am going to buy your cookbook after you finish writing it (hint)

9:59 am, February 18, 2006  
Blogger putoseko said...

Yay! Calamansi! we've got lots of it here in Manila!

1:56 pm, February 19, 2006  
Blogger relly said...

hi j, may i add you into my blog?

8:49 pm, February 19, 2006  
Blogger Clement said...

Hi J., as always, everything looks incredibly delicious and your pictures are so vibrant! I'd love to try oxtail and polenta sometime - it seems like the perfect winter dish!

10:49 am, February 20, 2006  
Blogger Anthony said...

J
Lovely work again. I was pleased to see Marcella Hazan popping up in there. I've got a cookbook of hers that dates back to 1980 and it's the first thing I go to when I'm cooking Italian.

Agreed on mise en place. I don't know if I've especially improved as a cook as much as now knowing what to have ready and when to do it. It changes a dinner party from madness to a well organised campaign. This has meant though that I've acquired an unseemingly large number of stainless steel containers.

7:24 am, February 21, 2006  
Blogger J said...

hi mm, thanks, but you're being incredibly kind! the dairy-enriched polenta is definitely worth giving a shot

hi michelle, thanks! at last count, just shy of 400, accumulated over the last decade or so...a hefty chunk of my modest disposable income goes into books every month, much to w's disbelief

hi pille, thank you so much for always being so generous with your encouragement whenever you visit - it really makes my day :) my motley assortment of bits and pieces, thanks to my low impulse control, constantly threatens to overtake the kitchen (and living room, and storeroom...)...

hi kel, thanks for dropping by! you've found me out - i am a cookbook junkie of the worst, most horrifically irrational, totally unrepentant kind ;)

hi flora, thanks for your kind words and for visiting! really glad to share and even more glad you like what you see

hi melissa, thanks! the sw france title is awesome - i have a feeling you'll love it ;) it's uncanny you should mention - i've long been curious about her no-stir oven method in slow med kitchen...would be fabulous if it worked with milk polenta too - hmm, experiments are in order...

hi viv, thanks! hmm, mascarpone and parm-enriched polenta with juicy sausages sounds like a supper made in heaven...

hi cin, thanks! since learning the holding technique, i can't say i've ever cooked soft polenta as often!

hi a, thanks and you are very welcome - glad you and m could join us. hope the polenta turned out well! btw, the tea could prove to be a very expensive habit all by itself ;)

hi robs, thank you so much for your very kind words!

hi putoseko, yay! here in singapore too!

hi relly, thanks for visiting! please, it would be an honour

hi clement, good to hear from you! thanks, you're much too kind, it's nowhere near your recent meal-to-end-all-meals ;) oxtail and polenta is comfort food indeed

hi anthony, thanks for your kind words. marcella hazan rocks, in the best italian mama sort of way. glad to see i'm not the only control freak ;) i use disposable plastic containers which i buy in bulk, thus tossing them away as i go along and doing away with having to wash them up!

1:56 pm, February 21, 2006  
Blogger Anthony said...

Hey J
Always deserving. I love the way Marcella can be completely dismissive of the infrerior in that lovely sad and disappointed motherly way. Cooking has always been the ultimate control freak hangout. Tsk chucking stuff away, beware the wrath of Hedora.

9:17 am, February 22, 2006  
Blogger J said...

hi anthony, absolutely; nobody else gets away with telling it as it is so bluntly and with so much authority. as for chucking stuff away, i daresay i also do it in the name of control freakiness - this will probably sound silly, but i'm convinced tupperware-type containers retain odours from their previous contents. perhaps its time to invest like you have in stainless steel...

9:54 am, February 22, 2006  
Blogger Anthony said...

Hmm I guess it depend what you put in it but I know pet bottles shouldn't be reused more than a couple of times.

Just get a bunch of dariole moulds and small bain maire tins and it'll all be hunky dory. The added advantage is you can keep them warm in the oven.

3:35 pm, February 22, 2006  
Blogger J said...

hi anthony, am all set; did my homework and have my eye on a bunch of stainless beauties...

1:20 am, March 30, 2006  

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