Monday, September 30, 2013

Creamy Polenta with Sautéed Apples, Mushrooms & Calvados

The apple harvest time has arrived and the market looks like an endless field of apples. The crates are overflowing, and when you come close to a stall, a faint scent of apples welcomes you, as if it were to say, choose me, chose me, take me home, take me home. So I grab two or three pieces of every single variety, take them home as requested, and place them in my gigantic fruit bowl. The remaining ones I scatter around the apartment instead of flowers, which I forgot to buy in my apple-induced haze.

My fruit bowl these days happens to be very global. As we stroll around the city we pick up all kinds of fruits. Longan fruit and guava from a recent visit to Chinatown, kiwi fruits and lemons to battle the never-ending stream of colds and runny noses in the household now that school has started, mini gourds because they are pretty (and no, we will not eat them), mini bananas because Dr. V maintains that they are the only banana available in the western world that actually tastes like its Sri Lankan counterpart.

My fruit bowl is the mark of the time we live in. When every food imaginable is just a mouse-click away, when everything can be shipped across the world in a split of a second, when the line between the seasons is blurred and continents have no meaning. I know I should be grateful for all the plentifulness, but gratitude often comes with a drop of sadness, for my daughter will never experience the joy of first strawberries in May, the scent of ripe peaches and the excitement of touching the gentle March watercress, often bundled with snowdrops, primroses and violets.

Good or bad, my daughter will also never experience the long winters when no other fruit is available but apples. Once upon a time, in a small country in the Balkans, the arrival of apples marked the arrival of cold, rains and winds. The apples would say to us that the winter is right around the corner, that for many months to come we will be eating beans, sauerkraut, roots and nuts. The apples would say that the food will be brown, that reds and yellows will come in spots - a contribution to the meal from preserves prepared lovingly throughout the summer. A tiny contribution, as no household had pantry large enough to accommodate a jar of color for every cold day.

And as magnificent this era of abundance is, I miss dearly the time of apples.

Am I really that old?

Creamy Polenta with Sautéed Apples, Mushrooms and Calvados

For the Polenta

* 1 1/2 cups coarse polenta
* 1 1/2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
* 3 cups water
* 2 tbsp butter
* A pinch of salt (about 1/2 tsp) 

For the Sauce

* 2 small gala apples (about 6 oz each), peeled, cored and cut into 1/4 inch cubes
* 4 oz shitake mushrooms
* 4 oz oyster mushrooms (if unavailable, use only shitakes)
* 2 small shallots (about 4 oz total), finely chopped
* 1 large garlic clove, minced
* 3-4 sage leaves, chopped
* A pinch of fresh marjoram
* 1/4 cup calvados
* 1 1/2 - 2 cups vegetable or chicken broth
* 1/2 cup heavy cream
1 tbsp butter
* 2-3 tbsp sunflower oil
A tablespoon or so of flour
* Salt and freshly ground pepper


1. Prepare the polenta. In a medium pot or saucepan, bring the broth, water and salt to a boil. Whisk in the polenta. When the water starts boiling again, reduce the heat to low and keep on stirring for about 10-15 minutes, until the polenta bubbles assume the rhythm of their own. At this point, you can let the polenta bubble without heavy supervision, for about 45 minutes. Pay a visit to the pot to stir from time to time (a bit more often towards the end of cooking). Remove the polenta from the stove, add the butter and mix well.

2. Proceed to prepare the sauce. Cut the mushroom caps into 1/4 inch cubes. If you are using stems (I do, except for very hard parts), make sure that you cut them into really small pieces, as they are tougher than caps. If you are using oysters and shitakes, do not mix, the oysters are gentle and need less time on the stove, and we will cook them separately.

3. In a medium saucepan, heat about a tablespoon of sunflower oil over medium heat. Add in the shitakes and cook for about 3 minutes until browned and soft. Remove the shitakes from the pan, and keep them in a medium sized bowl. In the same pan, heat another tablespoon of oil, add the oysters and cook for about 2 minutes, until soft. Add the oysters to the shitakes.

4. In the same pan, heat a tablespoon of butter, add the apples and cook over moderately high heat until browned, for about 3 minutes. Make sure not to overcook the apples. Add the apples to the mushrooms.

5. Deglaze the pan with calvados and pour over the apples and mushrooms.

6. In the same pan, heat a tablespoon of sunflower oil, add the shallots and cook for about two to three minutes until soft. Add the garlic, and cook for another minute, until fragrant. Add the apple and mushroom mixture, sage and marjoram, sprinkle with about a tablespoon of flour, mix well and poor in the broth. Simmer for a couple of minutes over medium heat, until the sauce thickens (if needed you can always add another pinch of flour, or if the sauce is too thick a bit more broth). Add in the heavy cream, and simmer for another minute or two. Remove from the heat and season with salt and pepper.

7. Pour the polenta into individual plates. Spoon the sauce on top and garnish with herbs. Serve warm.

Serves 6

p.s. You can prepare the polenta a day ahead and refrigerate. Before serving rewarm on the stovetop, with a little extra water or broth.

p.s. p.s. You can sub shitakes with porcinis. You can sub galas with cortlands, or any other firm apple with sweet mild flavor. As long as you are not using granny smith, you will be fine. Every time I sub, this dish assumes a new flavor, in a very nice way, but shitake/gala is my favorite combo so far.

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