An update! I know, right? I'm breaking all of those cardinal rules of social media savviness I've learned in the marketing profession and writing pursuit. That's lame of me. I have a few updates to do that I've been saving up for this, the end of my 2nd semester in school. I've also been hit with an unexpected bonus of time: Matt's been sent to California and Arizona for a solid week by his company, so I'm kicking off my semester break with the cats and a beckoning kitchen.
This morning I prepped for New Seasons grocery shopping by going through my gigantic recipe file. The goal? Make as many meals that I can't (or technically don't) cook when feeding Matt and I. This means all of the ingredients he doesn't like or appreciate, all packaged together into a grand festival of my awesome palette. For tonight, I didn't even need a recipe. I knew exactly what I wanted.
The forbidden fruit of meats, just a step below veal apparently on the abhorrent scale, the one that you always have to ask before you cook because a shocking amount of people refuse to eat it. Matt doesn't refuse to eat it, but he doesn't like it all that much. As such, I don't often feel like forking out the cash for it when it's just going to earn a "meh." I love lamb. Whenever we eat out somewhere nice, it's the first thing I seek out on the menu, and often what I order. I've had unforgettable lamb at Ten Mercer in Seattle (with Brynne and Dan, of course, that fateful mussels meal), overrated lamb at Portland City Grill, a heavenly shank at Hall Street Grill, underground but amazing lamb shwarma at Aladdin's by Concordia. No lamb at home though.
The meal I had in my mind didn't require a recipe I'd ripped out of Bon Appetit or the Williams-Sonoma catalog. It was a recipe gestating in my mind for months, inspired by the shank I had at Hall Street on my birthday and all of the Michael Symon Greek/Italian culinary pornography on Food Network. Lamb Ragout over Crisped Polenta Rounds.
Unlike lamb, polenta doesn't get a "meh." It gets a "NO". Apparently Matt had some traumatic thrown-up-cornbread incident in elementary school that has tainted all future cornmeal products. That means my corn dog craving has gone unsatisfied since last summer, our chili is accompanied by DINNER ROLLS (WTF!??), and my entrees are void of creamy polenta goodness. Again, I'm always scoping out polenta-heavy options when we're eating out, with different levels of success. I remember eating at a place in Seattle's University District with Mom that had polenta fries, and they weren't nearly as euphoric as I'd hoped. A little polenta goes a long way.
I made my list, including stuff for the SALMON cakes with LEMON and MINT and QUINOA SALAD that Kristine and I will enjoy tomorrow night. If my husband's food dislikes were Scrabble words, I'd be... uh, well, winning that game.
As I flipped through the file, I noticed the lonely Desserts tab. Why not bake something? I'd have all night, after all. Knowing I'd need to share whatever baked goods I cooked up with at my work on Monday to avoid complete diet sabotage, I looked for an inspiring recipe that was in individual form. There's nothing appealing to me about bringing in a half-eaten cake to share. What happened to the other half? Did somebody carve pieces out with their fingers? Lick it? We just don't know. Cupcakes, however, don't present these worries. Bobby Flay's Gingerbread with Candied Mango Buttercream cupcakes radiated off the ripped-off Food Network Magazine page and into my soul. I'm not crazy about Bobby Fway or his shitty-spirited Throwdown series, where he targets small business owners with one claim to fame and tries to knock down their tiny pedastol, but hey. The cupcakes did look tasty. With my list in hand, I headed into the Lake Oswegan wilderness to grocery shop... alone.
I returned home to assemble some of my very favorite things. Le Creuset, now losing her proud label but gaining so much experience on my stove. A can of last summer's tomatoes, which have made me all snobby now. If it's not me or San Marzano's, it's nothing. Hunt's? How dare you! Pish posh. And there it is, my own little package of lamb stew meat! Yes, it's almost $7 for half a pound. Yes, it's 100% worth it. But I'll get to that later.
I began by prepping for a slow-simmer tomato-based sauce as normal, but with a lighter hand. Less onions, no mushrooms, heavy on the herbs. I love how full and lively bunches of parsley are now, versus the sad little bunches that look like they want to commit suicide during the wintertime. I don't think parsley quite gets its due. It can blame the eighties, when it was used mercilessly by every nasty diner across America as the tasteless and useless accompaniment to the twisted orange slice on the side of the plate. The garnish. We were literally taught that it was a useless sprig. It's such a shame. Real, vibrant parsley has an aroma like fresh, dewy mowed lawn with a breeze of lemon and imparts a similar flavor. I admit it, I'm a parsley-sniffer.
To prepare for a slow braise, I browned the stew meat in the Le Creuset, then removed and softened onions and garlic. Once they were just turning translucent I deglazed the whole thing with some leftover Pinot that had been sitting on the counter a little too long to drink. The lamb fresh out of its packaging, as I tossed it in salt and pepper, smelled strangely similar to the richness of the wine. Stewing beef just doesn't have that kind of depth, no matter how nice it is. After it had cooked down a bit, I re-introduced the meat and added all of the tomatoes, spices and herbs. Since fresh herbs are wonderful but don't stand up as well in a dish like this, I coupled the fresh basil and parsley with dried oregano, dried basil and Penzey's Tuscan Sunset blend. By layering you get the color and hint of fresh herbs with the sturdy, strong flavor of quality dried herbs.
Flecks of green with that vibrant red--even flying off the cuff with my fantasies and experience with similar dishes, I couldn't be doing anything too wrong. I brought all of the ingredients to a boil and then let it cook for 2 hours in a very low temperature oven. This could have been Crock-Potted, but I wanted to use those brown bits that had been developed in the pan. And plus, the Crock Pot was in the garage and I didn't feel like dragging it up and out of there.
In the meantime, I began the crazy clusterfuck that was Bobby Flay's high-maintenance, anal-retentive cupcake recipe. The carnage included almost every dish in my cabinet getting dirty, even stuff people laughed at me for registering for when we got married, and ruined a Pyrex measuring cup so badly I had to just throw it out. But the end result was a damn fine cupcake. I'll never make them again, and I'm not going to post the recipe, but feel free to read it here and glean some understanding.
Although I could have made homemade polenta, let it set in a pan and cut it into rounds... I didn't. I bought one of the polenta logs from New Seasons and cut it like cookies, topped with olive oil, seasoning and asiago cheese shavings and baked on stoneware. Sneaking a few rogue tastes off the pan, I found that it tasted just as good as the polenta I've made a few times before (and ended up throwing a lot away of, being the only one eating it and all). I've still got about half a log I'll have to get creative with later in the week. I'm thinking doing something Southwest style. Cheesecake Factory does these amazing polenta cakes topped with pico de gallo, avocado cream and such.
Until then, I plated up a couple of the rounds and topped it with the ragout. Of course it needed a chiffonade of fresh parsley and basil, just to echo those original flavors. Another rule of cooking for yourself? Serve it on your best china. It's the perfect time to enjoy it--you only have one dish to do! Totally beats those Thanksgiving ordeals.
True, I'll probably get lazy later in the week. Tuna melts will happen. Eating out is inevitable. But tonight, I oohed and aahed and patted myself on the back for success in completely indulging myself. Sure, every cook loves to share their gift. But ultimately, the only tastebuds you can fully appreciate are your own.
Lamb Ragout and Polenta for One (or two if you don't take some for lunch the next day)
1/2 lb lamb stew meat
1/2 medium onion, finely diced
3 cloves garlic, minced
1 quart home-canned quartered tomatoes, or San Marzano tomatoes
1 small can tomato paste
3/4 cup red wine, such as Pinot Noir or Cabernet Sauvignon
2 tbsp minced fresh basil
3 tbsp minced fresh Italian-style flat leaf parsley
1 tsp dried oregano
1 tsp dried basil
1/2 tbsp Penzey's Tuscan Sunset
Salt and Pepper to taste
Juice of 1/2 a lemon
Additional minced fresh herbs for topping
1/2 prepared polenta loaf, sliced
1/3 cup shaved asiago
Sprinkling of Penzey's Tuscan Sunset
Preheat the oven to 250 degrees. Heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil over medium-high heat in a large Dutch oven, and place salt and pepper seasoned lamb in an even layer on the bottom. Brown on each side, about 2-3 minutes per side. Remove from pan and place on a plate. Set aside. Add onion and garlic to pan and allow to become translucent, about 5-7 minutes. Add additional olive oil, if necessary. Deglaze the pan with the red wine, scraping up brown bits that have formed. Allow to slightly reduce, another 5 minutes. Add canned tomatoes and paste, seasonings, herbs, the plated meat and salt and pepper to taste. Bring to a boil, then cover and place in the oven for 2 hours. Stir in lemon juice and additional salt and pepper.
To prepare the polenta, place the rounds on a stoneware baking sheet. Brush with olive oil, then top with a sprinkling of Tuscan Sunset and even distribution of cheese. Bake at 400 degrees until warm and slightly crisped, 15-20 minutes. Remove and allow to cool for several minutes. To plate, place 2-3 polenta rounds on plate and top with sauce and 1/2 of the lamb. Fill up a Tupperware with the other half. You will be the pride of your whole cafeteria seating area.