Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Seared Polenta with Mushrooms and Red Cabbage Parsley Caper Slaw

From start to finish, this polenta dish is quicker and easier to prepare than mashed potatoes. I can attest to that, because I made mashed potatoes the other day and between peeling, steaming, pressing the buggers through my small ricer, and then seasoning them copiously, I was exhausted. Polenta, on the other hand, is super fast and easy to prepare even though it appears fancy and even somewhat complicated. Score!

Simple yet totally impressive dinner, anyone? Here ya go!

While I was making this, I was thinking about the people in my life who feel that cooking is an insurmountable task that they'll never be able to master. I also thought about all the culinary "rules" that lead us astray, and man, I got really T-O'd. 

Don't rinse mushrooms (fyi, you can totally rinse mushrooms and they won't absorb the water, the issue is that wet food doesn't brown well, so just dry them well before cooking or just rub them clean, whatever you want is fine!). Baking is an extremely difficult "science" (kinda but not really, get over yourselves, baker elite!). Blah, blah , blah, you get my gist. 

Chefs all over the world are celebrated every day for challenging food norms and previously held notions about what ingredients to combine, what techniques to use, and even what constitutes food! Yet here we home cooks are, often paralyzed by fear. My question is, WHY? Why can they do whatever they want while we feel so afraid of breaking the "rules"? Let's stop all that nonsense, shall we? 

Most often, when I talk with people who feel as though they burn water, what I glean is that they're afraid of food to some extent. Forgive what I'm about to say (or don't), but to cook well, you've gotta make food your bitch. You can do so with complete respect for your ingredients too. Yeah, really!!!

You do this by seasoning like you mean it. Adding plenty of herbs, spices, salt and pepper to every element of a dish, at every stage, will result in delicious meals. And taste your food. You have got to taste everything to make sure it tastes good and is seasoned well enough. That seems so simple yet oddly enough, it's the most oft forgotten step in cooking. Confession: In my cooking school final, I forgot to season my rice. Mortifying but true. 

In addition to seasoning and tasting, of course, selecting quality ingredients is also very important. It's a trick that anyone can master, so long as you just start paying a little more attention at the grocery store or farmer's market etc. Quality doesn't always equate to expense either, just select the best looking, freshest and best smelling of what's available. Finally, cook your ingredients so you build flavor, for example, start by sweating or browning your aromatics (onion, garlic, carrot, celery etc.), toast your spices, give the ingredients their chance to shine. 

Bottom line, everyone has the capacity to be a good cook. All you need to do is get into the kitchen and practice AND stop worrying about all the supposed "rules". These same rules make people think that 
dumping food out of a box or can is easier than makin food from scratch, which, most often, it is not. 

So, in food and in life, let's jettison all the rules that no longer serve us. Buen provecho, friends!

Polenta Cakes with Mushrooms and Red Cabbage Slaw with Parsley and Capers

6 cups water
2 cups polenta (Bob's Red Mill was used here)
1 Tablespoon sea salt
1 teaspoon freshly ground pepper
1 Tablespoon salted butter
up to one cup cheese of your choice, I used aged provolone but goat cheese is excellent too (optional)

Line a glass baking dish with foil and grease with olive oil. 

Bring the water to boil and add the salt and pepper. Add the polenta and cook, whisking continuously so there are no lumps, until thick. Large bubbles will begin to pop up to the surface and sputter. Stir in the cheese, taste for seasoning and adjust if necessary. Pour the polenta into your prepared pan, smooth it on out, and let it cool/solidify for about half an hour. While it's cooling, make the mushrooms and slaw.

1 Tablespoon olive oil
1 medium onion, diced or cut into rings 
4 cloves garlic, finely minced
about 1lb button mushrooms, or mushrooms of your choice, sliced about 1/4 inch thick
1 Tablespoon fresh thyme, roughly chopped
1 teaspoon salt
freshly cracked pepper to taste (I did about 30 turns)
1/4 cup red or white wine (good enough to drink) or just water or broth
parsley, roughly chopped for garnish (optional)

Saute on medium until everything is softened and wilted. Add a bit more red wine or water at the end to deglaze the pan. Taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Cut of the heat and cover to keep warm.

Mustard Balsamic Vinaigrette
2 Tablespoons dijon or spicy brown mustard (I like any country style dijon or Gulden's)
1 Tablespoon balsamic vinegar
1 Tablespoon (scant) olive oil
salt and pepper to taste
*Note:  To save dishes, make the vinaigrette in your big salad bowl first, then add your slaw ingredients on top and toss everything together. You can always dress a slaw in advance, as doing so will tenderize the cabbage and infuse it with flavor, so this is a great side-dish to bring to a potluck or picnic!

Red Cabbage Slaw with Parsley and Capers
1 small head red cabbage, sliced thinly
1/2 small red onion, sliced into thin rings
2 Tablespoons capers
1 Tablespoon caper juice
1 cup roughly chopped parsley (set some aside for garnish)

To finish: Cut the polenta into rounds or squares. Heat a frying pan over medium/high heat and drizzle with olive oil. When the pan is nice and hot, add the polenta round/square and sear until browned and warmed through on both sides. Place the polenta on top of a bed of the slaw, and top with the mushrooms and garnish with chopped parsley. Enjoy!