Blog of an aspiring foodie

Simple and Marvelous

Posted by beer_chris on 8-January-2008

Quickly – had an esoteric experience for dinner tonight. This week as I prepare for a trip to the far east I am trying to get as much home cooking in as possible – but I still have evening meetings with Malaysia every night this week. As I meal planned on Saturday for the first time in months, I was trying to come up with things that would be easy to put together and would create tasty leftovers for Jaime. Sunday, made a cheesecake to munch all week and that night filleted chicken breast with a pan sauce & rice – I used my Penzey's adobo seasoning on the chicken and it was sublime.

Monday night was spaghetti and a marinara (not Ytees Mighty) with a tomato sauce I made back in June from fresh fruits from Caninos.

Tonight, though. Ahhh…tonight.

First, back up to Saturday. I was home most of the day, and so put the plan together I decided to pull out one of my fave cookbooks – Marcella Hazan's 'Classic Italian Cooking'. I've rarely been disappointed with her recipes, and this huge book is full of a lifetime of experiments. I was feeling in the mood for a polenta dish, and so I pulled out her recipe for a polenta lasagne. This was basically sliced polenta layered with a bolognese sauce and parmesan cheese. I looked at her referenced recipe for bolognese, and it had a cooking time of at least 3 hours – more if possible. Given that I had all day I went for it. I got started once I returned from the store. It was very simple and cheap ingredients: a mirepoix, ground chuck, milk, wine (1 cup only), tomatoes, a dash of nutmeg and some salt to taste. Simmered for 3-5 hours and these humble ingredients become something truly magical.

I put the result (ab out two cups of sauce) in a container and watched it congeal magically in the fridge – waiting for its moment on Tuesday.

This morning I made instant polenta while I waited at home for my furnace inspector to show up. Hazan said instant was OK for lasagne, as long as it was an Italian brand (i.e. using Italian cornmeal, which is of a finer grind than American cornmeal). Instant is apparently (according to hazan) not OK as a dish in it's own right. When it was done I promptly burned my hand and then formed the hot polenta into a square using my bench scraper, let it cool completely and stuck it into the fridge. This took all of 30 minutes start to finish.

Tonight I heated the bolognese back up, made a bechamel (to mix in with the thick chunky bolognese sauce and thin it out a bit), grated some parmesan and sliced the polenta into 'noodles'. Layered into a lasgna pan and baked for 20 minutes this was one of the most flavorful dishes I believe I have ever cooked. The smooth polenta had a bite to it but was very mellow underneath the saucy sweetness of the bolognese – Hazan says the sweetness comes from the meat and it's fat – the fat absorbs the sweetness from the mirepoix – the wine – and the milk and combines it with the acidity of the tomatoes to make something really magical. The combination of salty cheese, sweet sauce and slightly al-dente cornmeal mush was really awesome, and definitely a winner of a recipe I recommend to anyone with 4 hours to watch simple ingredients become something special.

A total of about 6 hours work went into this dish, but very little of that was actual work. The hardest part was probably preparing the mirepoix and making the bechamel. The rest was simple waiting – and boy was it worth it.

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