Last Chance Polenta
C'mon! Hurry up and eat it before it gets too hot!
Springtime, for me is the last chance to make polenta, a hearty, cozy, warming kind of food totally anathema to summer. I used to love watching Mario Batali on the Food Channel, the times I got to see him anyway, not having cable. I bought the book “Simple Italian Food” by Mario and the dishes I have tried are delicious and like the book says, simple. Shockingly, there are only 4 ravioli recipes in this book. Mario seemed never to have a show without cutting, filling and folding pasta to make ravioli.
Ever since making one particularly disgusting dish (with a seductive title) for the 3rd time, I’ve learned to edit my cookbooks. I write notes in the margins about what ingredients I REALLY put in and how the dishes turned out so as to remind myself what to make again and what to avoid in the future. I never developed any scientific grading, just: “Boring, Good, Good!, Very good, Very good!, and Delicious!” Don’t ask me the difference between Good!, and Very good or why there’s never a “Delicious!” without underlining and an exclamation mark. It speaks more to how I was feeling at the time. Anyway Mario’s recipe for “Soft Polenta with Asparagus, Prosciutto, Garlic and Ramps” (the way I did it) got a ¡Delicious!, (the Spanish punctuation expressing my extreme happiness with the results of this one.) Here’s the recipe:
(serves 4 as a single-dish meal)
1 lb asparagus, trimmed and cut into 2-inch pieces
1 cup polenta
¾ cup mascarpone or cream cheese
2 tbsp butter
3 cloves of garlic, thinly sliced
a 4 oz slice of prosciutto or cooked ham, in a ¼-inch dice
12 ramps or fat scallions, roots removed and cut into 2-inch pieces
juice and grated zest of 1 smallish lemon
½ cup dry white wine
Mario’s original recipe gives you a soft and creamy polenta, nothing you could ever slice and grill, for example. He did not allow for any substitutions for the mascarpone, prosciutto and ramps, but included a boatload of butter and more mascarpone than I put here. I did the recipe strict-to-specifications the first time and I can say after having made it several times hence with all of these substitutions, that they work beautifully. And nobody needs 6 tablespoons of butter in a polenta dish. Well, maybe if it were January. In Quebec.
Bring 4 cups of water to the boil. Add the asparagus and cook until barely tender, 1-2 minutes (depending on thickness of asparagus). Remove the asparagus with tongs and place in an ice bath.
Now pour the polenta into the asparagus cooking water – off heat - while whisking constantly. Music to whisk polenta by: The Velvet Underground and Nico. “I’m Waiting for the Man” really gets your whisking arm going, then afterwards you can snicker at German Model, Nico's deep robotic Schwarzenegger voice on "All Tomorrow's Parties". Not that I want to ridicule her or anything, that voice adds a perfect unsettling touch to a band for whom "unsettling" would have been this highest of compliments. Once all the polenta is incorporated, start stirring with a wooden spoon for about 5 minutes. You will get a “Cream of Wheat” sort of consistency. Take off heat, cover and set aside.
In a large frying pan, melt the butter over medium heat and add the ramps or scallions. Cook for 5-7 minutes (again, depending on thickness) until they are wilted. Add the garlic, prosciutto, asparagus, lemon juice and wine and let the mixture come to a boil and cook another 2 minutes. Sprinkle the lemon zest on at the last minute before dividing the polenta among 4 wide, shallow bowls and spooning the sauce on top.