This is a recipe I’ve created for my sister, the brilliant Melbourne-based fashion designer (and vegetarian!) Livia Arena. She’s been a huge help in setting up this site, (she seems to end up helping me with most things), and food is the only scant means of re-payment I have…
One Christmas, moons ago, while the rest of us were set to demolish some feast of meatiness, I made Livia a little pot of mushroom and tarragon shepherd’s pie following one of Nigel Slater’s recipes. The potato crumble topping was buttery and deliciously crunchy, but the real revelations for me were the fresh tarragon and Marsala wine. Such a delicate, unique and under-utilised herb, the tarragon was fresh and almost citrusy, while the Marsala gave the sauce a sweet and sort of woody flavour. Reminiscent of a classic Sicilian veal scallopini (minus the veal), the pie was a bit of a hit with Livia, and I think it is one she’s made on quite a few occasions since…
I starting thinking about tarragon, mushroom and Marsala again the other day when passing by a beautiful glossy tub of hazelnuts in my local shop. Arranged in a large and deep pile, it was impossible not to stand there, running one hand through, lifting out handfuls of nuts, then letting these drop from my fingers and clatter delicately back into the pile. I may have done this for a disconcertingly long time. I do recall attempting to pull away more than once, unable to think of an immediate use for the hazelnuts… Of course though, I bought them anyway and set about getting inspired…
Hazelnuts, to me, always offer a reminder of Italy, (just look at the size of the Nutella jars available there!). Apart from their more prosaic breakfast spread uses though, hazelnuts also speak of the first days of Autumn and, to my overly romantic imagination, of Tuscan forests, dry leaves, and the quietly bristling winds that work to send these to the forest floor. Sadly, the first month of Autumn does not differ so dramatically from the last moth of Summer in the country of my current abode, but nonetheless, or perhaps even because of this, Northern Italy is where me and my hazelnuts ended up.
Even further north, in the Italian Alps, and particularly in the Valle D’Aosta, they do really delicious things with polenta. Not mealy, flavourless, or actually sliceable in its stodge, this polenta has a more risotto-like consistency, and is so full of butter and cheese that it is probably best not to dwell too long on this particular characteristic! The idea of cooking a mix of beautiful fresh mushrooms into a sweet and light gravy to be pooled over some lovely soft polenta, with an occasional delicious crunch of dry roasted hazelnut, is one that has now been obsessing me for the better part of a week… So here it is… The fullest expression of my Tuscan rapture would of course demand fresh porcini, but living in a desert, you learn to be a realist!
- 15g dried Porcini mushrooms
- 50g butter
- 3 tbsp olive oil
- 300mls vegetable stock
- 2 tbsp plain flour
- 1 lemon – zest & juice
- 50mls sweet Marsala wine
- Small bunch of tarragon (leaves stripped from stalks)
- Salt & pepper to season
- A handful of whole (shelled) hazelnuts
- 200g polenta
- 1.3 litres water
- 2 tsp sea salt
- 100g Freshly grated Parmesan cheese
- 50g butter
- 1 good sized leek, sliced
- 1 clove of garlic, crushed
- 500g of mixed fresh mushrooms – Oyster, Portobello, Chestnut, Button, White or Brown Beech – whatever you can find
Proper polenta takes an age to cook – so it’s best to start with this. The wet consistency that we are going for here, requires a fair bit of water (no surprises there!) – so put 1.3 litres on to boil, along with the salt, in a large saucepan. Polenta has the tendency to splutter volcanically as it cooks, so I find that a large pot offers a bit of a splatter barrier. When the water has begun to boil, pour the polenta in slowly, whisking all the while to avoid lumps. The polenta will absorb the water quickly – continue to whisk until you achieve a smooth consistency (a few minutes), then cover and turn the heat down to a simmer. Depending on how coarsely ground the polenta you are using is, it will take between 40 minutes to an hour (or potentially even longer) to cook. Finer polenta will cook more quickly, but if in doubt, a quick taste test should be helpful with regard to determining cooking time. Like risotto, polenta requires a lot of stirring – a quick swirl with a wooden spoon every five minutes or so should do. If the polenta becomes too stiff at any point, don’t hesitate to add a bit of extra water to keep it to a smooth and stir-able consistency.
In a small bowl, re-hydrate the dried Porcini by covering with boiling water (approx. 100mls), then set aside.
Melt the butter together with the olive oil in a large casserole pan over medium heat. Add the trimmed and sliced leeks, turning the heat to low and covering in order to soften these without colouring them. Remove the softened leeks from the pan, turn the heat up to medium, and add the more robust mushrooms – Chestnuts (cut into halves or quarters), Portobello (thickly sliced), and Buttons (halved) – along with a touch more olive oil. Once the mushrooms are nicely coloured, re-introduce the leeks, stir, then sprinkle over the flour, stirring this through. Cook for a few minutes more, then splash in most of the Marsala wine – reserving just a little to add towards the end for extra kick. Pour over the vegetable stock, and add the Porcini, along with the water they have been steeping in. Stir everything through and leave to simmer gently for 15 minutes or so, until you have a sweet, glossy gravy.
When the polenta is looking like it is nearly ready, heat the oven to 200˚C. Halve the hazelnuts, arrange these on a baking tray, and pop them in the oven 10 minutes or so before you are ready to plate up.
Meanwhile, add the more delicate mushrooms (the Oyster and White Beech– left whole), to the rest of the mixture, along with the tarragon leaves, lemon juice & zest. Cook together for 2 minutes, then, do a quick seasoning check, and add salt and pepper as appropriate, along with that last bit of Marsala, if you feel it could use the extra sweetness/alcohol!
To finish the polenta, stir through the butter and grated parmesan. Using a large serving spoon, dollop the polenta onto warmed plates, swirling with the back of the spoon to make a well in the centre of each. Pile the mushroom mixture into this well, and scatter the roasted hazelnuts on top…
Delicious with an extra little glass of Marsala on the side!