Soft Polenta with Braised Oxtails and Red Wine Mushroom Sauce

What exactly does one do with leftover oxtails?

Now, there's a question I hadn't expecting to be asking. And yet, there I was. Fresh off the thrill of making oxtail stock for French Onion soup, with a bowlful of slowly braised oxtails and nothing to do with them.

Because, I don't know about you, but oxtails are not usually in my culinary repertoire.

It seemed an absolute shame for these to go to waste, so I went hunting. It seems oxtails, being a cheaper cut of meat, are perfect for long braises and soup bases. Well, wonderful. But what if you were already serving an oxtail-based soup?

Well, as I've always said, there are few things polenta can't solve.

Turns out, oxtails are perfect companions for polenta. The softness of the meat after it's been stewing for 3 hours or so still has just enough bite to balance out the polenta. Add in a red wine sauce with mushrooms and you have yourself a hearty end of winter meal.

This, I should admit, was also my first attempt at a "proper" sauce. I usually have little time for them, but the oxtails needed a flavor boost to round out the polenta dish. The one I opted for was a basic red wine sauce with mushrooms and shallots but ended up being the perfect complement to the other two components. Yes, it takes a good hour to make the sauce ("as it should!" some people might say), but it's wonderfully complex and elevates the lowly polenta and oxtail to new haute cuisine heights.

Braised Oxtails

I don't recommend making these *purely* for this dish, as it takes about 2-3 hours of slow stewing. I used them as leftovers from my French Onion soup recipe, which started with a base of oxtail stock. Now, if you're interested in making oxtail stock (which you should be, as it's fabulous), see here for the recipe. 
And then, behold! You have braised oxtails, ready and willing for polenta purposes.
Otherwise, for this recipe, feel free to substitute roast chicken, pork, or beef as the meat topper to the dish. It's hard to go wrong. 

Soft Polenta

Makes about 4 cups (4-6 servings)

4 cups water

3 tablespoons butter

1 cup yellow cornmeal

2 tablespoons to 1/2 cup grated Parmesan

1 teaspoon salt or to taste

Bring the water and butter to a boil in a large saucepan.

Pour in the cornmeal very slowly, whisking constantly.

Reduce the heat to low and cook, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the polenta is thick and comes away from the sides of the pan as it is stirred and the cornmeal has lost its raw taste, 30-40 minutes.

Stir in the Parmesan and the salt. Serve under the oxtails and red wine sauce. 

Red Wine Sauce

2 tablespoons canola oil
8 ounces shallots, sliced (about 2 cups)
10-15 chestnut mushrooms, sliced thinly
4 tablespoons sugar
2 tablespoons red wine vinegar
1 750-ml bottle Pinot Noir or other dry red wine (see picture for my choice in cheap-o cooking wine) 
1 14-ounce can low-salt chicken broth
1 14-ounce can beef broth
2 fresh thyme sprigs
1 1/2 teaspoons whole black peppercorns
1 Turkish bay leaf
1 tablespoon butter, room temperature
1 tablespoon flour

Heat oil in heavy large saucepan over medium-high heat.

Add shallots and mushrooms; sauté until tender, about 12 minutes.  
Sprinkle sugar over; sauté until mixture is deep brown, about 4 minutes longer. 
Add vinegar; stir until liquid evaporates, about 1 minute. 
Add wine; boil until reduced by half, about 20 minutes. 
Add both broths, thyme, peppercorns, and bay leaf; bring to boil. Reduce heat to medium; simmer uncovered 35 minutes to blend flavors, stirring occasionally. 
Strain sauce through a fine mesh strainer. (If you want a "pure" sauce, discard the solids at this point. I wanted the richness of the mushrooms and shallots with my polenta so I saved them to be added in at the end.)
Mix butter and flour in small bowl. 
Bring sauce to simmer over medium-high heat; gradually whisk in flour mixture. 
Cook until sauce is reduced to 1 1/4 cups, about 5 minutes. (Mix in the reserved solids, if desired, at this stage.)
(Sauce can be made 1 day ahead. Cover; chill. Rewarm over medium heat.)

Roasted Mushrooms with Goat Cheese and Grits/Polenta

Any Southerner who would have read the above title is probably in a wonderful position to shoot me now. I know, I know. You fundamentally can't confuse polenta with grits. Yes, they're both made from corn. Yes, they both can have a wonderful porridge-like consistency. But there is no way on heaven or earth that you can call one the other. I'm sure there's an actual fundamental difference between them (well, actually, even Wikipedia says they're darn similar), but when in England, grits are nowhere to be found.
Yes, this is sadly correct. Despite having adopted many a questionable item of American cuisine (like Poptarts, for example), grits remain an absolute unknown in the English food palate. Tell them about polenta and they're on board. Talk to them about grits and you get a blank face.
So, when I found this recipe (thanks to the NY Times Temporary Vegetarian), my heart yearned for the American original, yet I contented myself with the British equivalent. Which meant polenta. I was a bit nervous about using polenta instead of grits with the amount of water and milk that it called for, but it turned out beautifully. Just creamy enough to balance with the mushrooms and cheese and sticky enough to hold itself together in the bowl. I also had some leftover dried porcini mushrooms that I used with the recipe and used the water I rehydrated them with (infused with a wonderful mushroom-y taste) to blend with the milk in the recipe. An absolute win.

Grits may be off the menu for a little bit, but at least with this recipe, I have a fairly decent imitation. 


For the mushrooms:
1 cup chestnut mushrooms, cleaned and hard stems discarded
1 cup oyster mushrooms, cleaned and hard stems discarded
1 cup porcini mushrooms, rehydrated
1/4 cup extra virgin olive oil
1 sprig thyme
4 cloves garlic
Salt and freshly ground black pepper

For the grits (if you're lucky enough to have them) or polenta:
2 cups milk
1 jalapeño, split and seeded
1 clove garlic
1 bay leaf
1 sprig rosemary
1 teaspoon kosher salt
1 cup organic grits/ 1 cup polenta or fine cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
2 ounces fresh goat cheese


1. For the mushrooms: Preheat oven to 400 degrees. In a mixing bowl, combine the shiitakes, oyster mushrooms, creminis, olive oil, thyme and garlic. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Transfer to a sheet pan, and roast for 15 minutes. Remove from heat, discard thyme and garlic, and cover to keep warm. While the mushrooms are roasting, prepare the grits.

2. For the grits/polenta: In a saucepan over medium heat, combine milk, 2 cups water (here I used the porcini mushroom "juice"), jalapeño, garlic, bay leaf, rosemary and salt. Bring to a simmer then remove from heat. Pour through a fine-meshed strainer into a heatproof bowl, and discard the solids.

3. Return the liquid to the saucepan, and place over high heat to bring to a boil. Add the grits, lower the heat to medium, and stir constantly until fully cooked and smooth, about 15 to 20 minutes. Add butter and mix well.

4. Add the goat cheese immediately before serving and mix well. Divide the grits/polenta among six plates, and spoon the roasted mushrooms over the grits/polenta.

Serves: 6.

Mushroom and Shallot Quiche

Right, another quiche recipe. Hey, I was on a pastry roll if you know what I mean (no pun intended). Anyway, this presented a nice change for the cheesey gorgonzola quiche. A little more savory and earthy, but just as delicious. I recommend using as many kinds of mushrooms as you can find (or want) for this one. I used a combination of white and shitake mushrooms, but I think you'll get even more flavor out of this deceptively simple dish.

1 1/2 tbsp. unsalted butter
3 shallots, finely chopped
Salt and freshly ground pepper
1/2 lb mushrooms (at least), trimmed, wiped clean, and cut into 1/4 inch slipes
2 tbsp. minced thyme (fresh or dry)
1 9- 9 1/2 inch tart shell made from Tart Dough, partially baked and cooled
3/4 cup heavy cream
2 large eggs
2 scallions, white and pale green parts only, thinly sliced
2 tbsp. finely grated Gruyere cheese

(Tart Dough should already be made and partially baked)
Melt the butter in a large skilled, preferably one that's nonstick. Toss in the shallots, season with salt and pepper and cook over medium-low heat, stirring, until translucent, about 2 minutes. Add the mushrooms, season again with salt and pepper, turn the heat up to high, and cook, stirring, until they are softened and browned, 5 to 8 minutes. The mushrooms will first sop up all the liquid in the pan, then they'll exude it, then it will disappear. Sprinkle the mushrooms with 1 tbsp of thyme and cook for 30 seconds more, then turn the mushrooms into a bowl to cool for at least 15 minutes.

Center a rack in the over and preheat the oven to 350 degrees F. Put the crust on a baking sheet lined with a silicone mat or parchment paper.

Sprinkle the remaining tablespoon of thyme over the bottom of the crust. Spoon over the mushrooms, avoiding any liquid that has accumulated in the bowl. Lightly beat the cream and eggs just until well blended, season with salt and pepper, and pour over the mushrooms. Top the custard evenly with the sliced scallions and grated cheese.

Carefully slide the baking sheet into the oven and bake for 30 to 35 minutes, or until the custard is uniformly puffed (wait for center to puff), lightly golden, and set (mine took over 40 minutes). Transfer the quiche to a rack, remove the sides of the pan, and cool the quiche until it's only just warm or until it reaches room temperature before serving.

Wild Mushroom Soup

A few years back my mom gave me a Soup magazine, knowing my penchant for meals in a bowl. I've made a few of them over the years but this one was called into being by a recent late spring cold. There's nothing better when you're feeling down than a warm bowl of homemade soup. Of course, I was tempted by the old tried-and-true Chicken Noodle, but I gave this one a whirl and I was very happy I did. Same homemade flavors, hearty and soulful. It also took about 45 min., just about the limits of energy when you're feeling down and out. Of course, it also helped that it was raining cats and dogs outside, another perfect excuse for making soup.

Time: 45 min.


2 lb. sliced assorted mushrooms (button, crimini, and shiitake all work here. I also used dried porcini mushrooms, see note below about rehydrating them)

1 cup onion minced

2 garlic cloves

2 tablespoons olive oil

1/4 cup dry sherry

1 tablespoon fresh lemon juice

1 tablespoon paprika

1 teaspoon ground black pepper

4 cups chicken broth (or 2 cups chicken broth + 2 cups of the water you used to rehydrate the porcini mushrooms. It should be a dark brown color and will deepen the flavor of the soup. )

2 tablespoons cornstarch

2 tablespoons soy sauce

1/2 cup cream

1 tablespoon chopped fresh dill

Salt to taste


-Slice/prep the mushrooms.
-Saute onion and garlic in olive oil in a large pot over medium-high heat. Cook 5 minutes, or until soft, stirring often.
-Add mushrooms to the pot, increase heat to high, and saute until moisture evaporates. Reduce heat to medium.
-Stir in sherry, lemon juice, paprika, and pepper. Simmer until sherry has nearly evaporated, then add broth.
-Increase heat to high, bring to a boil, reduce heat to medium-low, and simmer gently for 20 minutes.
-Meanwhile, whisk cornstarch and soy sauce together to dissolve, then stir into simmering soup to thicken.
-Finish the soup by stirring in the 1/2 cup cream and chopped fresh dill.

If you like, garnish the soup with sour cream, lemon slices, and even more fresh dill.

Pasta with Chicken and Mushrooms, Risotto Style

from Bittman's Blog, NY Times

I'm not sure why I had never thought of this before. I mean, why
couldn't you cook any pasta like risotto? But thanks to Bittman, my mental lapses have been remedied. Any pasta comes out tasting absolutely delicious, creamy and decadent. And it's only chicken broth to blame!
Sign me up.


2 tablespoons olive oil, more as needed

1 shallot or small onion, chopped
1 tablespoon minced garlic
2 cups crimini, shiitake or button mushrooms, cleaned, trimmed and sliced
1/2 pound cut pasta like gemelli or penne, or long pasta broken into bits
Salt and freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup dry white wine or water
3 to 4 cups chicken or vegetable stock
2 boneless chicken thighs, diced
Chopped fresh parsley, optional
Freshly grated Parmesan, optional.


1. Put 2 tablespoons olive oil in a large, deep skillet over medium heat. When hot, add shallot, garlic and mushrooms. Cook, stirring occasionally, until mushrooms soften and begin to brown on edges, about 10 minutes. Add pasta and cook, stirring occasionally, until it is glossy and coated with oil, 2 to 3 minutes. Add a little salt and pepper, then wine. Stir and let liquid bubble away.
2. Ladle stock into skillet 1/2 cup or so at a time, stirring after each addition and every minute or so. When liquid is just about evaporated, add more. Mixture should be neither soupy nor dry. Keep heat at medium and stir frequently.
3. Begin tasting pasta 10 minutes after you add it; you want it to be tender but with a tiny bit of crunch. When pasta is about 3 to 4 minutes away from being done, add chicken and stir to combine. Continue to cook until chicken is done — it will be white on inside when cut — and pasta is how you like it. Taste, adjust seasoning, garnish with parsley and Parmesan if using, and serve.

Yield: 4 servings.