Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce

food-blog-february-2017-0351It’s funny, isn’t it, how when we have more time, we usually wind up with less time? I went into this weekend knowing, between my schedule this semester and Monday’s holiday, that I had four days before I had to go back to campus. Four days is a lot following the first week of the term, when there aren’t any papers to grade yet and the readings are short. I planned to clean the house, I planned to bake, I planned to get ahead editing photos for this little space, and I definitely wanted to work on a project working with web sources that I’ll introduce to my students a few months from now. Guess how many of those things I’ve done, and how many linger until today, the very last day it’s possible to accomplish any of them?

food-blog-february-2017-0326Sticking to a plan is hard, especially when you have time. That’s the challenge. It’s a challenge whether you’re thinking about cleaning out the garage, registering voters, writing a paper, or making a multi-component dinner. Here I wanted a play of textures and flavors that all come together perfectly in the finished dish – the soft mellow creaminess of polenta topped with nutty roasted vegetables, just frizzled on the edges, topped with a tangy sauce of red wine, well-reduced, sharp with onion and deep with herbs.

food-blog-february-2017-0338I had this all planned out so I could start early and have plenty of time to play with photography, make the polenta extra creamy, and do some multi-tasking while the cooking took place, so of course I ended up rushing, and dinner was a good half hour later than I’d intended. But you, I’m sure, will stick to your plan, and have it all ready to ladle together within an hour.

food-blog-february-2017-0343Though I’ll admit I’m not thrilled with the photos in this entry (I was rushing and didn’t take enough time to get the lighting I wanted), the dish itself was delicious, and turned out almost exactly how I’d hoped. In future iterations I would strain the onions out of the wine sauce before serving, but in the moment I found I just couldn’t be bothered: bellies needed to be fed, after all.

food-blog-february-2017-0342A bowl of polenta is such a comforting prospect when it is damp out, especially when it is enriched with milk and finished with creamy chevre, as I’ve done here. The meaty roasted mushrooms and toasty sprouts, some soft, some with crisp, almost burnt outer leaves, made perfect sense, and stood up to the pleasant acidity of the sauce. Here’s to making sense, then, and planning, and standing up when needed. Here’s to doing what we can with our time.

Roasted Brussels and Mushrooms with Goat Cheese Polenta and Red Wine Sauce
Serves 4
45-55 minutes
For polenta:
4 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
1 cup milk
¾ teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta
2 tablespoons butter
4 ounces goat cheese
For wine sauce:
4 tablespoons butter, divided
½ cup finely diced red onion
2 cups dry red wine
3 cloves garlic
1 bay leaf
2 2-3 inch sprigs fresh thyme
2 teaspoons honey
2 cups low-sodium chicken or vegetable broth
salt and pepper to taste
For vegetables:
2 lbs untrimmed, or 1- 1½ lbs trimmed brussels sprouts
1 lb crimini mushrooms
½ cup olive oil
1 ½ teaspoons salt
½ teaspoon pepper

 

  • Though I’ve divided up the ingredient lists by parts of the dish, in the procedure that follows I go back and forth, showing you where to switch between components, so it can all be ready at the same time.
  • Preheat oven to 425F and line two baking sheets with aluminum foil. Start 4 cups broth and 1 cup milk + ¾ tsp salt in a medium saucepan. While you wait for the milk and broth to boil, prep the vegetables. First, finely dice the onion. Crush the garlic, but don’t worry about the papery skins. Stem, wipe, and quarter the mushrooms. Trim the brussels (stem off, outer manky leaves off), halve (or quarter if quite large).
  • When broth/milk barely reaches a boil, add the polenta slowly, whisking the whole time. Continue whisking slowly, intermittently, until the mixture noticeably thickens. Then pop the lid on, lower the heat, and let it simmer, whisking every 3-4 minutes or so (be careful: it will bubble and spit!), until it is very thick and soft; 30-40 minutes.
  • Meanwhile, as soon as you’ve added the polenta to the pot, start the wine sauce. Put two tablespoons of the butter in a medium skillet over medium heat. When it has melted, add the onions and turn down to medium low. Add a pinch each of salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the onions are tender but not browned, about 10 minutes. While you’re waiting, finish up your vegetable prep if needed.
  • With the onions tender and slightly translucent, add the red wine, the crushed garlic cloves, the bay leaf, the thyme sprigs, and the 2 teaspoons honey. Stir briefly to distribute, then turn the heat up to medium high and let it boil until it is reduced to about ⅔ cup.
  • While the wine works, drop all of the prepped mushrooms into a large bowl and toss them with ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt. When well combined, scrape them onto one of the prepared baking sheets. Now do the same with the brussels sprouts, dumping them into the bowl and tossing with the remaining ¼ cup olive oil, ½ teaspoon pepper, and ¾ teaspoon salt before spreading them out on the other baking sheet. Load both sheet pans into a middle rack of the preheated oven and roast for 20 minutes. Toss with a spatula, assess, and if you want them browner (I frequently do), pop them back into the oven for another 10 minutes.
  • When the wine mixture has reduced, add 2 cups of chicken or vegetable broth, return to a boil, and reduce to about 1 cup. Remove the thyme, the bay leaf, and the garlic cloves, strain out the onions if you want a smooth sauce, then stir or whisk in the final 2 tablespoons butter just before serving.
  • When the polenta is thick, tender, and pulling away a bit from the sides of the pot when you stir it, whisk in a final 2 tablespoons butter, crumble in the goat cheese, and taste and adjust for seasoning. Hold it over very low heat if you need time for the other components to finish cooking.
  • To serve, ladle a thick puddle of polenta in the middle of a plate or shallow bowl. Top with a mixture of brussels sprouts and mushrooms, and then spoon some of the sauce directly over the vegetables, and some around the outer edge of the polenta. Serve hot.

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Braised Lamb on Kale and Avocado Toast

2016-food-blog-november-0420Are you tired of turkey yet? Good, me neither. But just in case you want an indulgent break, may I suggest lamb instead? The inspiration for this recipe comes from three places: a restaurant near our house that does a braised lamb dip with kale and a garlic jus, the intense obsession of the last few years that is avocado toast, and Ina Garten. Ina doesn’t offer me any dish in particular, but does often take luxury ingredients and serve them in a very simple, homey way, and that’s exactly what happens here.

2016-food-blog-november-0395The first few times I watched a Barefoot Contessa episode that did this, I was annoyed. Like Ina’s penchant for advocating “best quality” base ingredients (read: expensive), I found the idea somehow pretentious. If I’m going to spend the money on fancy ingredients, then I want a fancy dinner! But contemplating this dish, it somehow seemed right. Let’s slow braise some lamb with aromatic vegetables and a good splash of wine until it collapses and shreds eagerly, bake a loaf of nicely seeded bread and cut it into thick slices, and spread that bread with a smash of avocado and kale, dosed with a good squeeze of lemon to keep it bright before draping on a healthy pile of the lamb. Fill the belly and keep the darkness away.

2016-food-blog-november-0391In determining how to go about this, I turned to yet another inspiration: the marvelous food mind that is Michael Pollan. In his book Cooked, which I’ve written about before, he spends a chapter discussing braising as a cooking method, and offers a mentor chef’s procedure in seven steps. Though I’ll give you the full recipe below, here’s what he recommends in my own order:

  1. salt the meat, then brown it
  2. finely dice some onions
  3. sauté onions and other aromatic vegetables
  4. place all the ingredients in a covered pot
  5. pour the braising liquid over the ingredients
  6. simmer, below the boil, for a long time
  7. remove pot from oven. If necessary, skim fat and reduce liquid. Bring to the table and serve.

As you can see, this is a procedure rather than a recipe – it’s the kind of steps a grandmother well acquainted with her own methods would give, and answer questions like “how many onions” with “enough,” or the precise temperature at which to braise with “oh, pretty low.”

2016-food-blog-november-0401Within the chapter itself, though, Pollan does give a bit more. Since the section of the book is the look at “Water,” he discusses the merits of using water rather than some other liquid to braise. Though we are always tempted to use broth or stock or wine, he notes that water retains a purer flavor – the meat is not in competition with the flavors of the liquid you’ve chosen. I bore this in mind, but wanted some red wine richness and tang anyway, so I settled for half and half water and wine. Only part way through the miracle, I suppose you could say.

This is a long project. The braise itself takes 2-3 hours all on its own, and that’s after you’ve let the onions cook down slowly for 30 minutes, then allowed the other vegetables to mingle another 15. Plus, as if all that wasn’t enough, you give the lovely, heady broth another good half hour to boil to create your final jus. And if you’re baking the bread yourself (in for a penny, in for a pound, right?), you’re looking at another multi-hour ingredient. You could, it seems, spend the entire day in the kitchen, lazily cooking your way toward dinner. Add some Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros, and that sounds like the day of my dreams.

2016-food-blog-november-0408When you’re finished, even though the resulting product looks humble, the reward is anything but. The lamb falls apart, and you stand there over the bowl you’re shredding it into trying not to stuff too many pieces straight into your mouth. It is meaty and savory and slightly gamey, and you taste lamb, but also wine and dark, piney, peppery herbs, and a subtle sweetness that comes from the vegetables. And then you pile it onto freshly toasted bread that you’ve smeared with the grassy, fatty spread you’ve made of kale and avocado, and you dribble over some of the juice left behind in the pan, and you eat it. And that was your day: making food, eating food, letting the aroma of the long braise fill your nostrils and your house, and you sleep happy.

2016-food-blog-november-0412Not that you need telling what to do with leftovers as luxurious as braised lamb, but if you aren’t sure, I think they would make amazing filling for tacos, perhaps with some shredded cabbage and feta cheese, and maybe a dollop of sour cream or yogurt, thinned with a squirt of lime and sprinkled with wafer thin slices of jalapeno and radish.

2016-food-blog-november-0420

Braised Lamb on Kale and Avocado Toast
Approximately 5 hours
Serves 4 + leftover lamb
2 tablespoons salt
2 pounds lamb leg or shoulder, in one piece (i.e. not in chunks)
¼ cup olive oil
2 white or yellow onions, finely diced
3 large or 4 medium carrots, finely diced
3 ribs of celery, finely diced
8 garlic cloves, smashed, skins removed
2 bay leaves
1 tablespoon whole peppercorns, optional
2 inch sprig rosemary, optional
2 cups dry red wine
2 cups cold water
2-3 ounces kale, leaves only – tough stems removed – finely chopped
1 ripe avocado
2 tablespoons lemon juice
1 tablespoon chives or green onion tops, very thinly sliced
salt and pepper to taste
thick slice of seeded toast for each diner
optional: finely sliced pickled radish or onion, to garnish

 

  • Sprinkle the salt evenly over both sides of the lamb. It will seem like a lot. Don’t worry. This is seasoning the entire 2 pounds of meat AND the broth. Let it sit for at least ten minutes, or up to a few hours.
  • When you are ready to cook, heat the olive oil in a dutch oven or other large, steep-sided pot with a lid over medium-high heat until it is shimmering. Carefully add the lamb (the oil may spit) and let it sear until well browned, then flip and repeat until all sides are nicely browned: about 2-4 minutes per side. Remove to a plate.
  • Turn the heat down to medium low or low and add the onions. We are looking to sweat them, not brown them. They will pick up some color from the lamb, but don’t actually let them sizzle too much after adding them. Cook, stirring frequently, until they are very tender and translucent, about 30 minutes.
  • Add the carrots, celery, and garlic cloves, stir to combine, and cook another 15 minutes.
  • Add the bay leaves, the rosemary and peppercorns, if using, and settle the lamb on top of the vegetables. Pour the wine and water in around the lamb as well as any meat juices that collected on the plate while the lamb rested, add the lid, and turn the heat up to medium high. Bring to a simmer, then turn back down to medium low or low – we want to keep the liquid below a simmer – only the barest bubble every so often.
  • Cook, keeping just below a simmer, until the lamb is very, very tender: 2-3 hours.
  • When the lamb falls apart at the slightest fork provocation, hoist it out to a bowl and turn up the heat on the pot to high. Boil the cooking liquid about 30 minutes to reduce it, then strain out the vegetables and, if you wish, pour the remaining jus into a gravy boat to serve.
  • While you wait, make the kale and avocado spread: scoop the avocado out of its skin and smash it up with a fork or spoon. Squeeze in the lemon juice, add the kale and chives and mix well, then taste and add salt and pepper to your liking.
  • Toast the bread and smear on thick, equal portions of the kale and avocado spread.
  • Just before serving, shred the lamb using two forks or, if it has cooled enough, your fingers. Pile a good helping onto the toast, then scoop or pour on a few tablespoons of the jus. Eat immediately.