Sunday, February 21, 2016

Not My Gramma's Cornmeal Mush

Today was another Cooking Saturday with my friend Katie. Cheese stuffed meatballs were on the agenda, and they turned out delicious. Like we often do, we grocery shopped before cooking so we'd have everything we need for the project. Once again I find myself leisurely strolling the aisles at one of the great big grocery stores in the city. So much inspiration all around me. The produce section was full of fun things today. Carambola, big beautiful red bell peppers and baby bananas ended up in my cart, along with blackberries, cucumber, carrots, onions, and some beautiful asparagus. I was proud of myself for not blowing the entire grocery budget right then and there- the oyster mushrooms, dragon fruit, papayas, mangoes and all kinds of different varieties of apples were calling my name.

In the bakery they were having a buy one get one free specials and I succumbed to the temptation to stock up on baguettes. Some made it to the freezer and one is waiting for me to break it open and slather on some butter. The olive bar is a frequent trap and it caught me again today. Peppadews and a mixture of lovely green and black olives made a great snack while we were cooking meatballs. Katie had never tried peppadews and I do believe she is a new fan. 

As I walked up and down the aisles I made a mental list of recipes I was wanting to try and ingredients I would need but don't have, like fish sauce and oyster sauce, so when I reached those shelves I added a small bottle of each to my selections. Baby clams for the Chef (he is a big lover of red clam sauce) and more cookie sprinkles for my collection added to the eclectic assortment of groceries in my cart. I also grabbed a couple of the ingredients we needed for our meatballs and finished up my shopping and headed back to Katie's to cook and relax. 

Our Saturday ritual is a godsend for both of us. Being able to connect with a woman who shares so many commonalities with me- first and foremost being a night shift Chef wife- we identify with each other's struggles like no friend I have ever had before. The restaurant industry can be very hard on families and being able to talk to someone who has the same frustrations that I have makes it so much easier to deal with the "bad" things- like the weekend nights that he works and I don't, and holidays like Valentine's Day- guess who will be working and guess who will not be going out for a romantic dinner. It's funny to talk about the eccentricities of our partners and how similar the guys are, even though they have not yet met each other, they appear to be cut from the same cloth.

Since I will not be going out for a romantic dinner on Valentine's Day I decided to cook something really lush for dinner. Braising beef with vegetables and a rich stock and tomato based sauce were the perfect way to warm up on this cold and snowy Valentine's Day. It was also a chance for me to play a little with polenta instead of the typical potatoes. Since I also snagged a bottle of my favorite Riesling at the store, it was a pretty nice dinner for one. Polenta is one of those easy to make dishes that's often overlooked as fussy and difficult to master- which is so not true. You also don't need to buy anything special. It's cornmeal. That's it. Just like the old fashioned cornmeal mush your grandparents probably made for breakfast but this version is made creamy with whole milk, butter, and cheddar cheese. It's so perfect with a rich brown gravy and hearty braised beef cubes. Let's make some!

Cheesy Polenta

1 cup water
1 cup whole milk
1/2 cup cornmeal
salt. pepper
1/2 cup shredded cheddar cheese
2 tb butter

In a saucepan  over medium high heat bring the milk and water to a boil. Slowly add the cornmeal, whisking the entire time to prevent lumps. 

Reduce heat to low and cook about 15-20 minutes until creamy and tender. Remove from heat. Season with salt and pepper and stir in cheese and butter.

What to serve with polenta? something rich and beefy with dark gravy

Braised Beef Tips with Mushrooms

2 lb boneless beef roast or steak
salt and pepper
4 oz fresh mushrooms
4 slices bacon
1 medium onion, cut into chunks
5 cloves fresh garlic, minced
2 carrots, peeled and sliced
2 tablespoons tomato paste*
2 bay leaves
1/2 teaspoon rosemary, crushed
3 cups beef stock (or a mix of stock with wine or beer if you prefer)
cooking oil

*As an option to using tomato paste you can use chopped sun dried tomatoes as well. They add the same depth of flavor.

Wipe the mushrooms clean with a damp paper towel. Trim the ends off the stem and halve the mushrooms. Set aside.

Cut the beef into large cubes, trimming off fat. Season meat with salt and pepper. Dredge in flour. Cut the bacon into 1/2 ich pieces. In a Dutch oven or braiser, cook the bacon until crisp and browned. Remove to a paper towel to drain and set aside. Leave the bacon fat in the pot. Begin searing the beef cubes being careful not to crowd in the pan. Remove beef cubes to a plate as they brown and add more to the pot. 

After the beef is browned add another tablespoon of oil to the pot. Add the onion and carrots, cook and stir for a couple minutes, then add the garlic and herbs. Cook and stir for a minute. Add the tomato paste and stir well. Add the beef broth and bring to boil, scraping up the browned bits from the bottom of the pot. Return the beef to the pot along with the mushrooms and bacon. Cover and reduce heat to low, cook 2-3 hours, until meat is tender.

Remove meat and vegetables from the cooking liquid using a slotted spoon. Make a small amount of cornstarch slurry to thicken the gravy. Return the meat and veg to the sauce. Serve over the polenta.

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