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Sometimes I Cook Slow

February 15, 2011

Sometimes I cook slow, sometimes I cook quick.

More people should cook. They should. The truth is that it’s not hard. Really. It’s easy. But it does take time. And time is something a lot of people either do not have, or if they have it, they chose to spend it on other activities besides cooking. Because truthfully, cooking is more than cooking: it’s shopping for fresh food, prepping ingredients, cooking, sitting down to eat, clearing dishes and cleaning up.

For those of us who do cook, it is easy to forget just how daunting some of the simplest dishes are to make. Just this past Friday I was at a potluck, and I made a baked polenta. While I didn’t know for sure, I suspected Leah the Nosher might be there, so I wanted to make something nice. Not that I thought other food bloggers would be judging everything and everyone all the time (most of us don’t). It’s just that I’m fiercely competitive, and I wanted her to like it.

Even going the extra mile, I really thought this was a simple dish.
That was, until I stopped to think about it.

While any fool could make it, that fool would need the better part of three days.

At its simplest, the dish was polenta with tomato sauce, onions and cheese. I suppose in theory a competent home cook who already had all the ingredients in their pantry could bang out a version of this in two hours. But I took my time, and in doing so was able to build some more complex flavors.

Day 1 – I made the broth, strained it and reserved in the refrigerator.

Instead of cooking the polenta in water, I decided I wanted to cook it in a Parmigiano-Reggiano broth. This involved an overnight simmer of collected Reggiano rinds. While the rinds appear waxy, they are not. Parm-Reg has a salted rind that hardens and then is branded, but it’s entirely edible. Still, it needs to be braised and softened before one can attempt to eat it.

Should you decide to try this, I would be remiss if I didn’t mention that Young Master Fussy thought it made the house smell like vomit. Little Miss Fussy thought it made the house smell like poop. But I say that it was totally worth it. And for the record, I found the smell to be pungent but not unpleasant.

Day 2 – I made the tomato sauce.

For the tomato sauce, I wanted to use some of the blanched and frozen tomatoes from my mother-in-law’s garden. We still have a bunch of them. But this was easy too. Just some extra virgin olive oil, a few crushed cloves of garlic, some dried Turkish oregano, marjoram, the tomatoes, some salt and lots and lots of time. They simmered much of the day and then overnight in the slow cooker. I love that thing.

Day 3 – I assembled the beast.

Making the polenta itself is easy. You boil the liquid, slowly whisk in the organic corn meal, and keep whisking it periodically for the better part of an hour. The old-fashioned way is a continuous whisk, but even Marcella Hazan has relented and endorses the simpler method. This only requires a minute of vigorous mixing every ten minutes. When it’s done, the soft polenta can be poured into a pan to sit and congeal.

While it was cooling, I had the good idea to caramelize some onions that still remained from our CSA’s winter box. This is a slow process, but I found that Cooks Illustrated suggested a “quick” 45-minute version that is foolproof with the addition of just a wee bit of brown sugar.

To assemble the dish, I scored the formed polenta with the tip of a sharp knife, so that it would stay together yet still allow the sauce to permeate into the mass. Then the sauce was spread on top followed by the caramelized onions. I topped it off with some grated and chopped sharp provolone cheese and baked it in a hot oven until the cheese was melted and picked up a bit of color, the better part of a half hour.

So in the end maybe it wasn’t so easy. But on the other hand, it didn’t actually require any skill. It only took time. And if you ask Leah, she’ll tell you it was delicious. It would be nice if I could take credit. But I can’t. I barely did anything.

You take good ingredients, keep them simple, apply heat and time, and don’t screw it up. Before you know it, you are cooking.

There is no secret ingredient. The secret is in the ingredients.

5 Comments leave one →
  1. Tonia permalink
    February 15, 2011 11:54 am

    Love it! Sounds delicious.

  2. February 15, 2011 12:44 pm

    I satisfied my recent polenta craving in a manner that required even less skill on my own part – I ordered it as a side dish Sunday night at Cafe Capriccio. I really think you need to go back there…order the eggplant, the beans and greens, a salad topped with housemade pancetta and a couple of small portions of pasta – maybe the fettucine with kale and housemade sausage? Share with Dr./Mrs. Fussy and I think you may begin to understand the spell the Cafe has the ability to spin.

  3. Stevo permalink
    February 15, 2011 12:51 pm

    I was the freezer king. I only ate frozen “entrees”. I never cooked and had no interest in it. In fact, I thought it was some kind of magical art. Then I got religion. I’ve been cooking for about 5 or 6 years now and can’t imagine eating crap all the time.

    I had help. My wife always cooked and her father and mother have been avid cooks for some 40 years. On top of that, I became a FoodTV junkie. Had I not had the help of my wife and in-laws (and television), I don’t know if I would have been able to learn to cook or at least cook well.

  4. February 15, 2011 2:30 pm

    It was delicious. Layer upon layer of complex flavor combined with simple ingredients used very, very well. I’d never seen a cheese broth before. To have a lighter polenta with the flavor of the Parmesano Reggiano, without the heaviness of the cheese itself, created a beautiful balance within the dish.

    You’re leaving out important ingredients, though: an experienced cook’s intuition, eating joyfully and a willingness to have Little Miss Fussy convinced she needed her diaper changed ;)

  5. February 15, 2011 10:40 pm

    This makes me want to eat second dinner.

    Last night I found myself abandoned at home with two other mouths to feed. I was really pleased with myself when I managed to invent my own chicken dish, complete with a nice little sauce by de-glazing the pan–the leftovers are even all gone today! Normally I call my mom and ask her what she does to make X, Y, or Z, but this time I just tried to pick simple mixtures of flavors that I knew I loved, and see what happened. It was so satisfying, and really took hardly any effort, just time! :D

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