Monday, 16 March 2009

POLENTA COI FUNGHI, with chocolate soufflé for dessert

Okay, so the first thing you’re looking for here is some valid justification for yet another recipe for polenta funghi, and all I can do is smirk and try to make you realize that it’s not really about the recipe but rather the process. Karen cooks like that, too. She tries to play nice on her blog with stepwise instructions—but the truth is that the only thing rules and steps do is make your butt pucker. Let me recount the life of a real dinner.

The whole thing starts at just after noon when I attempt to negotiate a no-cook night at the pho joint we like, but Adri doesn’t want to dress to leave the house so I’m told to get groceries after the gym. It’s a brisk March day in San Juan Capistrano and jeez—it might even be 65°F outside. Sweater time. Pho sounded good, but so does polenta to my Milanese spouse. And let there be chocolate soufflé for dessert, since you’re going shopping anyways.

I take stock of what’s already there in the pantry—polenta and dried porcini brought from Italy, and some decent 71% chocolate from Trader Joe’s for the soufflé—plus the staples: flour, oil, butter, sherry, sherry vinegar, sea salt, garlic. Just need whole milk and eggs and fresh mushrooms and I’ll be done. Gym, TJ’s, and I’m back home at 3:45.

Kid #1 is at a friend’s house and Kid #2 won’t eat the polenta or the ‘shrooms, so it’s a bacon and eggs dinner to get him out of the way (Karen doesn’t have this problem with her boyz, or so she says). 4:00 and I’m free to cook. We’re shooting for an early dinner tonight—5-5:30.

A big handful of dried porcini goes into one of the kids’ cereal bowls—hot water from the teakettle covers them, and agitated with a spoon a few times the dirt loosens, dislodges, and settles to the bottom of the bowl. Some olive oil and flour are put on medium heat in a saucepan to make a roux. Cutting garlic into a small dice, inspiration has me taking a Guinness pint from the fridge and drinking all but about a cup. When the moisture is gone from the roux (no more bubbles), the garlic goes in and toasts a bit while the roux starts to take on some color. Then that last cup of Guinness goes into the pan rather than down my throat (this was the hardest part!). Mixing this well it gets really thick and comes off the heat to avoid the scorch. It’s way too thick now, but it will be softened by more liquid to be added shortly.

Okay, the porcini should be fully hydrated by now, and after a couple more agitations they can be extracted from the liquid and set aside. The liquid gets decanted into the pan, leaving the sand in the cereal bowl, and the pan goes back to the fire—low this time. Some whisk action with a splash of sherry vinegar and a dose of sea salt complete a very smooth mushroom base, which should now be about the consistency of a rather thick gravy.

Fresh ‘shrooms today were small brown button-y things--they call ‘em “Cremini” here. I have no idea where that name came from and I don’t want to know. Sliced coarsely, sautéed with olive oil on high heat, they cook quickly and I throw in a splash of Fino sherry (my kid—the one who doesn’t eat the ‘shrooms—loves to watch the pan flame) and then the rehydrated porcini, which I’ve coarsely chopped. A few more tosses in the pan, then all that mushroomy goodness goes into the saucepan with the mushroom/Guinness gravy. This is going to be tasty.

Polenta is simple. It’s a three-to-one ratio of water to corn meal (a good polenta bramata is a good thing to have in the pantry), and for two hungry adults, a cup and a half of polenta will make two good-sized portions with extra for seconds. Not wanting to deal with fractions, I went with two cups of polenta (and six cups of water, plus a little extra water because I prefer too soft over too thick). Lightly salted water comes to a boil, then stirring the water in a circle the polenta gets added in a stream. What happens if you just dump? Serious corn clods, that’s what! The idea is to make every grain of polenta enter the water and be surrounded by water, not by other grains of polenta. Stirring for a minute more the polenta thickens up to about as thick as it will get, but it still needs to cook for about ten minutes over low heat. Stirring vigorously frequently as the polenta cooks will give it that “true polenta” consistency that you can never get with the instant stuff.

While the polenta cooks, a little fire under the ‘shrooms in sauce will bring them up to temperature. At the ten-minute mark polenta and ‘shrooms go to the table. That’s four portions for normal people, two portions for Adri and me. Recommended wine: Guinness.

Afterthought: the polenta funghi dish I just described is completely vegan—no dead animal parts or products whatsoever. Unless you're one of those militant vegans who drive everyone to homicidal fantasies, this is the best kind of vegan dish, i.e., one that ends up being vegan unintentionally—there's no substituting for butter or eggs anywhere, because there is never any call for them in the first place. [If you are a militant vegan, you want the people who accommodate you to suffer.] Next dish, though, is still "vegetarian" only because I'm not twisted enough to add meat to a dessert.

After cleanup, it’s soufflé time. Oven preheats to 375 F while butter and flour cook lightly together in a saucepan. Kid #2 is interested in the soufflé, so I calculate for an extra portion—the normal two-person soufflé plus a little single unit, both of which are buttered. That means 1 1/3 cups of milk, whisked into the butter and flour to make what amounts to a very heavy béchamel. Fully thickened, it comes off the fire and in goes the chocolate—the whole bar—one dash of salt and a nice dose of sugar. How much sugar? I add, taste, add more, until it’s the right sweetness, and then I add some more sugar to compensate for the other ingredients still to come. This is the “process” I was talking about before. If you overshoot with the sugar and it’s too sweet, no big. Too sweet is better than not sweet enough. One thing I haven’t figured out yet is why the béchamel becomes so much looser when the sugar is added. At this point, a splash of vanilla could be added—or not (maybe better not).

Eggs. Six whites and five yolks, separated. The whites are going to be beaten, so keep them free of yolk or even the slightest speck of butter. The yolks get whisked into the chocolate mixture, and the whites beaten with a bit of sugar to the soft-peak stage. Now, about a quarter of the whites should be folded gently into the chocolate stuff to lighten it, making it runnier and airy. Then the chocolate and the rest of the whites get folded together very gently, but also very thoroughly. Seems like this might be hard, but it’s not. They actually come together rather nicely.

The batters go into the soufflés, filling to just below the widening of the rim, and the soufflés into the oven. About six minutes in, the oven is turned down to 325 and about fifteen minutes later the soufflés go to the table. This could be enough for four in genteel company, but shit—this is seriously fun pig-out food. We finished our soufflés no problem, even though we were already stuffed with the supersize portions of polenta.

This is a goopy, gooey soufflé. If you want something more cake-y go buy yourself a Hostess Ding-Dong.

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