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Tuesday, 27 February 2007

I remember you, lemony ragu

It was some time around 2.30am on January 1st, 2005. I was perched on a bar stool at 'inoteca, a little Italian joint on the corner of Rivington and Ludlow. The festive buzz was all around and I was gurgling away with pished contentment, waiting for a final indulgence after a night full of ‘em; we’d kicked off the night with a glittering cabaret performance from Eartha Kitt and seen in the new year slurping cocktails while Adam DJ’d at Ding Dong. But there was one more little treat left to make this the specialist…

Just to back up a bit: Adam and I were on our 'let's pretend we live in New York' holiday and, for maximum effect, we'd rented an apartment on the lower east side for two weeks. It was a few doors down from 'inoteca where, a few nights earlier, I had discovered my food obsession of the moment: a plate piled with mushroom ragu and creamy lemon polenta. Soft, tart, juicy, sweet, zingy – mmmmmmmm.

So, returning to New Year's Eve and the fact we'd found 'inoteca still open when we were on our way home. Adam had quietly crept away as I enthusiastically explained my must-have craving to the maitre d’ type person, along with the kicker that I really wanted to take it back to bed rather than eat at the restaurant. While loopy-hour take-away may not have been the 'inoteca staple – the joint seemed kind of fancy – rather than shoo me out the door, kick me to the curb or, worse, ignore me, the guy was impressed with my zeal for his ragu. He happily elbowed a little space at the bar and sat me down with a tasty glass of wine. There I waited, merry as could be, for my plate to be made.

And so it was that Adam and I slurped on our first meal for the year – in our PJ’s, sitting in bed in our temporary Manhattan apartment, sipping champagne and taking in the sounds of the city. Blish.

What you'll need

3 large or 6-8 small shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
A few fresh sprigs of thyme (rip the leaves off the stalks)
2-3 cups of chopped mushrooms (I used enoki, button and shitaake, but any small mushies'll do)
Olive oil
1 lemon
2-3 cups veggie stock (I was out so used miso paste & vegemite instead, which worked fine)
1/2 cup of old red wine
Salt & pepper
Polenta (I used 125g for 2 people)

For the ragu

Fry the shallots and garlic in olive oil, careful not to brown or burn them (stir regularly). Once they are soft and transluscent, add the mushies and thyme. Stir on med heat for a minute before adding the wine. Stir in a teaspoon of butter (optional) and the stock and turn the heat up to med-high. All you need to do now is reduce the liquid so let it bubble away, stirring occassionally.

For the polenta

You can do the polenta while the ragu is reducing. For 125g of polenta, you'll need the grated rind of one lemon, 1/4 of its juice, about 600ml stock and a spoonful of butter (if you ain't vegan). Bring the stock to the boil. Stir in the butter and add your lemon rind and juice. Reduce the heat then pour in the polenta at a steady stream, stirring repeatedly. Let it cook on medium heat, stirring like a vigilante. It should only take five minutes. You want it kinda on the sloppy side, so don't do it too early or it'll firm up while it cools. When it's done, turn the heat right down and leave the lid on.

When the ragu has lost most of its liquid, plate up.

It might not look so flashy but the combination tastes brilliant, with the smooth, tangy polenta a perfect foil for bitey red mushies. And even though I’ve never been able to perfectly recreate the harmony of the original, the flavour always takes me back to our first dinner of 2005 and that little patch of NYC we happily roamed for a fortnight.

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