Comfort Me with Chanterelles

Gentle Reader, While I’m closeted writing a novel I hope you’ll enjoy reading, it’s been suggested I post pieces from earlier years … years when I was freshly widowed, living in or near L.A. with my dog, waiting for Bill to appear. Do please bear with me!

A View from 15 years ago: THURSDAY, AUGUST 13, 2009

OK. When I think about Daw Aung San Suu Kyi in Myanmar facing eighteen more months of house arrest … or women moldering in refugee camps all over the world … I have no complaints. Zero. Zip. Nada. I am covered with blessings.

Still, I confess, relative to my modest life in context, it has been a nasty week … nah, week-and-a-half. Of course we live in our own context, the spectre of the beautiful martyr in Myanmar is real/not real. Here sitting where we sit, we are relatively better or worse than we might be … might have been … were. Indeed, I want for nothing. I am hugely blessed. But, Pollyanna that I am, even so it has been a stressful time. (I will spare you the details.)

This afternoon I worked my usual Thursday as a volunteer at UCLA’s new hospital. I work in the surgical waiting area, helping people who sit for hours waiting for family and friends in surgery. It’s a great job, rewarding, and every week sets my world in order, particularly because there are always small children involved … today “Baby Boy Jones” wasn’t three days old. How can you come away not filled with gratitude?

But by 5 o’clock as I headed home, I felt in need of comfort food. What would it be? I didn’t have breakfast (had to take my panicked mother to the doctor’s early), no lunch to speak of (had to take Ma marketing before taking her home), so I could afford something frivolous with calories. I settled on it: polenta and mushrooms — not just mushrooms, chanterelles. Perfect.

I went to Ralph’s and picked out several handfuls of chanterelles, a handful of shiitake, and half a dozen crimini. Chanterelles always make me think of my cherished Susan Lescher, as I had never seen chanterelles before Gene and I went to dinner at Susan and Bob’s in Sneden’s Landing — she served us buttery pasta with chanterelles. I was agog.

I came home and put together—

Paula Wolfert’s incomparable baked polenta. For just me for two meals (or for me and a friend), I set the toaster oven to 350 degrees while, in a round 4-cup earthenware baking dish I combine 3 cups water, ¾ cup polenta, a scant tablespoon olive oil, and ¾ teaspoon salt. The oil floats on the surface, the cornmeal and water don’t mix, not to worry. I place the uncovered dish in the oven (the temp doesn’t have to have reached 350). I set the timer for an hour, at which point the polenta has a bit of a crust … I stir it with a fork, then cook it another half-hour, and serve. (For more people, I multiply the ingredients out … temperature and times are the same.)

I poured myself a glass of my Spanish red wine, watched the recording of tonight’s “Newshour” — delighted to see Renée Montagne from Afghanistan, I’m a big fan of hers on NPR’s “Morning Edition” — prepared the mushrooms. I cut the crimini into odd shapes, à la Deborah Madison, cut the delicate shiitake in half, sliced only the largest chanterelles in half. I had two heirloom tomatoes in danger of being lost, so I peeled them, pressed out seeds and juice, and roughly chopped them. When the polenta was about ready, I heated a drizzle of olive oil in a big skillet and sautéed two minced shallots and four minced garlic cloves until softened. Added a lump of butter and the crimini and shiitake, sautéed them a couple of minutes, then mixed in the chanterelles and tomatoes. Sautéed, stirring, another few minutes till the chanterelles were tender. I plopped polenta on my plate and the mushrooms over it. Sprinkled over a handful of shredded aged SarVecchio Wisconsin (pleasing stand-in for Parmigiano-Reggiano). Sat in my accustomed chair watching Jon Stewart.

Felt better.

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