Oh, Polenta…

Recently, the New York Times Magazine published a piece arguing against the tyranny of the mise-en-place: that process by which any (every) chef of note prepares for the cooking of a dish by carefully slicing and dicing the plethora of ingredients required for its success. Of course, in most restaurant scenarios, the mise-en-place is prepared by a team of underlings who crawl into bed each night with carotene-stained fingers and the smell of onions in their nose hairs.

Like many home chefs with obsessive-compulsive disorder and a tendency to romanticize the labour of men and women in perfectly-ironed sparkling white frocks, I have long desired to attain the perfect mise-en-place. At my parents’ house, where there are dozens of small clear glass dishes, but no interest in such nonsense, I created an elaborate mise-en-place for a 12-person Indian dinner, complete with roasted spice mixtures and separate bowls of garlic and ginger. This was Christmas 2008, and though I remember little about the meal itself, I remember the feeling of accomplishment as I stood in front of my little bowls, picturing myself tossing one ingredient after another into the smoking ghee.

At home, though I endeavor to attain such perfect order, I inevitably fail to meet my own standards for excellence. I blame this on my lack of matching bowls, but in truth, I know that it is simply life that is getting in my way. Last March, when underemployed and entertaining my mom for a few weeks, we turned the preparation of the mise-en-place into something magical. First, we would prepare our daily cocktail. Then, we would sit across from each other with our cutting boards and ingredients and spend the next hour or two chopping and chatting to our hearts’ content. This is one of the loveliest ways that I have found to pass the hours between cinq and sept, but now that I am back at work, such luxuries are beyond my reach.

Which returns me to the present. Tonight when I arrived home, having spent the previous hour nursing a headache and a bag of ruffles on the never-ending metro ride from work, I was reminded of my offer to make dinner. I had come across a recipe for grit pudding with succotash in another issue of the Magazine, and had thought it the perfect way to use up some of our over-stocked vegetables: cabbage, peppers, eggplant, tomatoes and squash.

Earlier, I had asked my husband to put some dried mushrooms into soak, and as I took care of a few email-related tasks, he chopped up a handful of shallots and put them in the old cast iron with a little olive oil. When I emerged from the internet cloud, they were nicely caramelizing and a small pile of chopped red pepper was sitting on the cutting board. I threw it into the pan with the dried mushrooms, added a little of the soaking stock, and let it simmer up.

Then, with a nod to the recipe, I set a pot to boiling and dropped in a handful of edamame. Meanwhile, I chopped up some eggplant, garlic and parsley, and my fella halved some yellow cherry tomatoes and grated up some cheese: half Parmesan, half aged cheddar. When things were starting to look good in the old ragu, I threw in the eggplant, garlic and parsley, added some more mushroom stock, and let the thing alone for a while longer.

I have Mark Bittman to thank for my ongoing love affair with polenta because he pointed out how easy it is to make when you just stick it on the stove and forget about it. Basically, you take a cup of coarse cornmeal and add a cup of water, stirring it until you have a slurry. Then you put the lid on a let it heat up. When things start looking tacky, you add a little water, and keep doing this until it tastes cooked and you have a consistency that you like. When you get to the point where all is right in the world, you add some butter, salt and the cheese and stir it around.

By that time, the vegetable mixture needed only to be loosened a little with a splash of white wine, a pat of butter, and some salt. I tossed it with a little chili for fire, and the fresh tomatoes, and then let it sit for a minute so the flavours could meld. When you are ready to eat, you spoon some of that cheesy polenta into a bowl, pile some vegetables on top and sprinkle the whole thing with a little extra Parmesan. To me, this is really the perfect meal for an early autumn night. That it came together with such ease I attribute to the good vibes and shared labour in the kitchen, proving once again, that sometimes not being prepared is what can also create something amazingly good.

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