As in all forms of creativity, human nature compels us to add our special touches to food to make it better, make it ours. Artists standing in front of our canvas, we stroke a bit more wet paint here, a speckle of texture there. It seems that culinary pop culture supports the extravagantly complex plate, piled high with color and texture. Contrasting, yet, complimentary flavors layered on top of one another. We drizzle pan sauces on top of thrice cooked meats, blanch then smother then bake garden vegetables into six inch deep pans and pour cream and cheese onto anything that won’t resist. Sometimes, our food is almost too damned pretty to eat and nothing is quite finished without a little bacon or maple syrup on top. While I love experimenting with complexity and pork as much as the next closet chef, every now and again, I crave the basics. I want to start over. To wash away the extra layers, scrub away the excessive brush strokes. I want to see the earth on my plate and be thankful for the gifts that nature offers in their simplest form. And is simplicity itself not a form of art? Knowing when to stop adding, stop painting. When to put the chisel down, drop the glue gun, put away the Mod Podge…step away from the plate. A true appreciation for a finished dish comes with true appreciation for each of its individual ingredients. Visualize, if you will, a bacon wrapped chicken breast, stuffed with herbs and soft cheese, grilled and moist. Perhaps next to the chicken there’s a pile of whipped potatoes and grilled vegetables all slathered in butter. Tasty, no? Now, take away everything but the chicken breast. Take out the cheese. Toss the bacon. Remove everything but the poultry and the plate. The meat cooked to perfection, fork tender, sprinkled with a bit of sea salt and cracked black. If your mouth doesn’t water at the thought of that unadorned cut of perfectly prepared fowl then I submit these two possible scenarios:
A. You’re a vegetarian/vegan, in which case, replace bird with eggplant.
B. You need a pilgrimage to a third world country so that you can cleanse yourself of your excessive ways and learn to appreciate the privilege of a full belly and the availability of food.
Please know, dear reader, that I don’t intend to take a no-frills approach to every meal. I don’t intend to snub pig fat and I love a beautifully complex plate. But, for today, let’s keep it basic. Two foods, simply prepared, nestled together in a warm embrace.
Sautéed Mushrooms and Creamy Polenta
For the polenta
1 c milk
1 c heavy cream
3/4 c ground polenta (no instant)
1 1/2 c water
1/2 teaspoon sea or kosher salt
2 1/2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3/4 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese
1/4 c extra grated cheese for serving, optional
In saucepan over medium heat, add milk, water, cream and salt. Bring to simmer and whisk in polenta. Lower heat to low and cover with lid slightly tilted. Every few minutes, whisk vigorously. Cooking should take approximately 25-30 minutes. Polenta will be creamy and thick. Remove from heat and stir in butter and Parmesan. Sprinkle with a bit more Parmesan.
For the mushrooms
8 ounces baby Bella mushrooms, quartered
1 1/2 tablespoons butter, cut into cubes
1 1/2 tablespoons olive oil
1 sprig of rosemary, coarsely chopped
Salt to taste
In cast iron or enamel skillet over high heat, add oil then butter. When butter begins to foam, add mushrooms. Shake pan around a bit. It is important that the pan not be crowded with mushrooms or they will steam, not brown. Work in batches, if needed.
When mushrooms are browned on both sides, add chopped rosemary and cook a minute more. This will crisp the rosemary and intensify the flavor. Remove from heat and place on top of polenta. Cozy up to a roaring fire and dive into this bowl of comfort.