Fresh asparagus has started to show up in the stores, and, while it’s inexpensive, we picked up a couple of pounds. Most times we shop at a grocery store, we mainly pick out things that look good, or that are on sale, generally with little idea about how we’ll use them; however, asparagus is always really easy: do the least amount of cooking and seasoning to let the flavor shine through.
That’s exactly what we did with this dinner. We decided that we’d simply grill the asparagus brushed with olive oil to help concentrate the flavor. And, while asparagus is really tasty, it’s more of a side, so we decided that we’d make up a batch of polenta to grill right along with, and even eat dinner al fresco. In the past, we’ve made a basil polenta that we grilled, and that worked so well we used the same recipe, but exchanged the basil for fresh sage (our basil plant has pretty much had it, but our sage is looking really good). Rather than do a sauce for the polenta, we opted for just a drizzle of balsamic vinegar reduction and a shaving of Parmesan cheese. Since we still had a bit of dill oil left, we decided to use a drizzle for an accent.
This dinner is really just three different recipes put together (the links are in the above paragraph), all of which are made in advance, so it’s pretty easy to make once you have a fire going. Rather than repeat the recipes here, we’re going to highlight some of the steps.
Mise en place. Making polenta only requires a few ingredients and a lot of nearly constant stirring, so you won’t have time to do prep in the middle; get everything ready beforehand.
Cook polenta. This time, we brought out a book to read while we stirred and cooked the polenta. This batch took over an hour to cook until you could stand up a spoon in the middle.
Season. We used about an ounce of grated Manchego cheese, sage leaves, butter, and black pepper, but be as creative as you want. Other cheeses, other herbs, it’s your dinner, not ours.
Shape. If you want to grill or fry the polenta, it needs to be firm, so press the polenta into a buttered 8×8-inch pan, cover with plastic, and refrigerate an hour or two.
Prep asparagus. we like to snap off the woody stems rather than cutting them off. If we use a knife, we often cut off too much, or leave a bit of woody stem in place, but, by snapping, each stem is perfectly trimmed. Oh, and save those stems for making vegetable stock — we do!
Grill. Brush everything with oil before you start grilling. This does two things: keeps it from sticking, and seals in moisture and flavor.
Plate. For plating, we drizzled a bit of the dill oil we had on hand over each plate, and plated the asparagus topped with a drizzle of balsamic reduction and a few shavings of Parmesan cheese (use a vegetable peeler to get nice shavings of cheese). Finally, we stacked the polenta triangles over the asparagus, making it look as if we were eating in a fancy restaurant, rather than our backyard.
We’ll be honest, making polenta from scratch is a chore. It’s stirring a pot of steaming corn meal for about an hour to get it just right. While we’ve tried the double boiler method — it works, but is not as good — we find that just putting in the time at the stove is what’s required. So, with that in mind, we can understand the temptation to buy one of those chubs that you see in stores, and we’ve purchased them in the past, but they pale in comparison to freshly-made polenta. And, while this meal really tasted fantastic, when it comes to worth it, we’ll give it four stars because of the effort involved. After all, even we dedicated scratchers only make polenta from scratch once or twice a year.