Homemade polenta can be an intensive affair, it requires half an hour of near continuous stirring. Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone has a walk-away version, but it needs to simmer for an hour and a half, after two separate pots of water are brought to a boil, one at a time, on top of each other. That takes more pre-planning than I can handle.
So I used the stir-a-lot method. I figured I'd be standing by the stove prepping veggies for the ragu anyway and it wouldn't be a big deal. It wasn't. Except that I failed to notice what else was going on in the kitchen, most notably the scissors in my daughter's hand and the hair on the floor.
Luckily it wasn't mine. I am too old for a mullet. But on a rather perky soon to be five year old, this look can work. Think Jon Bon Jovi as a toddler, standing on the sofa with a blood orange sunset glowing through the window behind him. That's what I saw when I left the kitchen. We celebrated her new haircut with sorbet for dessert.
Traditional Polenta: (adapted from Deborah Madison's Vegetarian Cooking for Everyone)
If you're making this with the ragu, you'll want to start the pancetta step of the ragu before the polenta.
2 cups course cornmeal
1 1/2 teaspoons salt or to taste
2 to 6 Tablespoons butter
Bring six cups of water to a boil in a large, heavy saucepan. Add the salt and then the cornmeal in a steady stream, stirring constantly with a whisk to avoid lumps and having it thicken too quickly into a hard lump. Lower the heat and cook, stirring more or less constantly for 30 to 45 minutes. If the polenta seizes up into a hard mass, add small increments of boiling water while it cooks to smooth it out. When done, taste for salt and then stir in butter. Serve immediately or keep it warm over boiling water (in a double boiler) until ready to serve.
Provencal Vegetable Ragout: (adapted from Cooking Fresh from the Bay Area)
1/2 pound pancetta, cut into one inch pieces
1-3 sprigs thyme
1 cup chicken stock
1 quart water
8 to 10 baby carrots, scrubbed (sliced into baby sized pieces if you use larger carrots)
3 spring onions, sliced (spring onions are pretty small, about the size of a leek)
1/2 cup chanterelles or other forest mushroom (rehydrated dry ones work fine)
2 cups freshly hulled peas or shelled and peeled fava beans I'm sure frozen would be OK)
1 bunch asparagus, rinsed and trimmed
2 Tablespoons butter
Heat a small saucepan over medium heat. Add the pancetta and brown, for about 5 minutes. Add the leek and thyme and cook until the leek starts to soften. Add the chicken stock and water. Bring to a boil, reduce the heat to low and simmer uncovered for an hour or so.
When the pancetta is tender and there is about one cup of liquid remaining (after about an hour), remove the thyme and transfer the mixture to a saucepan large enough to hold all the vegetables.
Bring the heat up to medium, add the carrots, onions and mushrooms to the pancetta-leek mixture. Cover and cook for about four minutes (longer if you used older carrots). Add the peas, cover again and cook for two minutes. Add the asparagus and butter and cook for four more minutes, or until the asparagus and carrots are tender. Be careful not to let the liquid evaporate completely, you may need to add a little bit of water. When the ragout is finished, there should be only a small amount of liquid coating the vegetables.
Taste and salt, if necessary. Serve over polenta.
Blood Orange Sorbet: (adapted from Chez Panisse Cooking)
This is one of my favorite recipes. Ever. I've been making it yearly since my husband and I were given a fancy juicer by one of our wedding guests. Its a little late in the season this year for blood oranges, but if you, like me, buy them and then spend weeks agonizing over the right time to make sorbet, they will keep fine in a plastic bag in the fridge.
12 to 16 blood oranges, to yield 1 quart juice
grated peel of two of the oranges
1 cup sugar
Grate the peel of two of the oranges and set it aside. Juice the oranges and strain through a fine-mesh sieve (this is a great job for little kids, have them rub a spatula along the bottom of the sieve to help the juice drain through). Place the juice in a pan or bowl and add the sugar and the peel. Stir the mixture until the sugar is entirely dissolved (another good preschooler job). Chill the mixture in the refrigerator, then freeze in an ice cream maker. Serve the day it is made.