Saturday, November 28, 2015

Guest Chef- Jenny B's Polenta Bites with Mushroom Ragu

Way back when my kids were still young seems like we always had a house full of other peoples' kids. Teenage girls with a flurry of clothes and makeup, teenage guys in the driveway showing off their cars and stereos. Jenny was one of my daughter's ever-present teenage friends that was always at our house, or the girls always at her house, yes always. They were pretty much inseparable. Goofy girls fussing over their hair, changing their outfits a million times, and worrying about those boys and cars. I had no idea this little smidge of a girl I had called Mini Jenny for so many years would become a cooking heavy hitter. 

As is life, the girls grew up, graduated from school and began their careers. I remember Jenny coming to my house as a brand new sales rep for Cutco and introducing me to what would become a huge obsession of mine- kitchen knives. Jenny moved on from selling Cutco, but the knives I acquired have become mainstays in my collection.

Jenny's submission to Perkin's Restaurant's contest- Open
Faced Steak Sandwich with Sauteed Spinach, Fried Egg and
Gorgonzola Sauce (photo by Jenny)
Jenny's heritage is Asian. If there is one thing I learned from my Asian friends it's that they are amazing cooks. Every occasion is a feast with tables laden with incredible ethnic dishes from meats to vegetables, noodles, rice and eggrolls. I tasted foods I never knew existed, and learned to overcome my hatred for cilantro as it was a huge part of so many of those Asian dishes. Of course Jenny grew up immersed in this culture and learned a few things along the way. Her style of cooking is eclectic and modern. A lot of fusion in her dishes. Techniques you'd never expect from such a young lady. And....... style. She just has so much style.

Beautiful Pancetta Wrapped Asparagus (photo by Jenny)
Thanks to the internet I have been able to watch Jenny's cooking blossom and grow. Her food always looks flawless. Her plating is inventive and beautiful. She just knows which plate to serve which food on and nothing ever seems mismatched. To top it all off, she has a keen eye with the camera and takes fantastic pictures of her culinary creations.  I have been wanting to do a feature with Jenny for some time but recently when she shared a pic of a fantastic appetizer on Instagram I knew this was the one I wanted to share (and make!!).

That fish is as big as Jenny!
It's no secret I am a sucker for delicious cocktail foods. I love making just a few appetizer type dishes, opening a bottle of wine, and having a nice quiet cocktail party for two. This recipe is perfect for that. It is insanely decadent with the polenta and Parmesan cheese, and those tender wine-braised mushrooms. Jenny used shiitake mushrooms for hers. I like to use a mix, so I used cremini, oyster, chanterelles and shiitakes. The chanterelles were dried and rehydrated before cooking. 

Polenta sounds like a very gourmet food, but it's actually quite simple. It's a fancy word for cornmeal mush. That's it! Super simple and easy. You don't need to splash out tons of cash for a package marked "polenta"- just buy yellow cornmeal. You want to cook it until the grains are soft and tender, so test often. I season with salt and pepper at the end of cooking and I go easy on the salt if I'm using Parmesan cheese, as it's quite salty on its own.

These days you can find Jenny cooking at The Des Moines Golf and Country Club in West Des Moines. 

Polenta Bites with Mushroom Ragu

1 cup yellow cornmeal
4 cups chicken broth
Parmesan cheese
ground white pepper
cooking spray
8 ounces fresh mushrooms*
1/2 red onion
2 garlic cloves
olive oil
1 teaspoon fresh thyme leaves, chopped
salt and pepper
1/2 cup Marsala wine
1 cup dry red wine
2 tablespoons butter
1 leek
oil for frying

*Jenny uses shiitake mushrooms. You can use whatever mushrooms you like. Shoot for about 2 cups of chopped mushrooms.

Spray a rimmed sheet pan with cooking spray and set aside.

In a medium saucepan bring the chicken broth to boil over medium high heat. Slowly whisk in the polenta, and continue whisking until thickened. Reduce heat to low. Cook until the polenta grains are tender, anywhere from 15 to 40 minutes. Stir every five minutes or so, to prevent sticking. Taste for salt- in case the chicken broth is fairly salty. Season with salt, if needed, and white pepper. Add Parmesan cheese to taste- I'm estimating about half a cup for my liking.

Remove from heat and pour into rimmed baking sheet. Spread out with an offset spatula so it's even in the pan, and about half an inch thick. Set aside and allow to cool at room temperature.

To make the mushroom ragu, clean and trim the mushrooms. Discard the stems of shiitake mushrooms. If using dehydrated mushrooms you will want to soak them in warm water for about 30 minutes to soften. Rinse and pat dry with paper towels. Chop the mushrooms into small dice. Chop the onion and garlic.

Heat a couple tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet. Add the mushrooms, onions and garlic, and cook over medium heat until the mushrooms are browning and the onion is soft and translucent. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in the thyme.

Add the wines to the skillet and allow to cook until reduced and glossy. Stir in the butter. If you need to thicken the sauce, use a small amount of roux or cornstarch slurry.

To make the fried leeks, slice the leek into quarter inch slices. Separate into rings into a bowl and sprinkle a little cornstarch over. In a small pan, heat a small amount of oil and fry the leek rings until browned and crispy. Watch closely- they brown quickly! Remove to a paper towel to drain.

To serve, cut the polenta into bite sized squares, or shapes using canape cutters if you really want fancy. I prefer the clean and contemporary look of the neat squares. Place on a serving platter and top with a bit of the ragu and a couple fried leek rings. Serve immediately. 

This is such a lovely cocktail party nibble. The wines in the ragu add a savory complexity to the mushrooms' earthiness and the butter brings it all together with such a creamy texture. The polenta- oh my gosh, so so good. So modern. So Italian. Everything here can be made ahead and refrigerated. Just let the polenta return to room temperature and reheat the mushroom ragu a little before assembling.