Here’s a nice dish for a special, stay-at-home St. Valentine’s Day dinner. Don’t be afraid of the bear. I make dishes with the meat I have on hand, which is usually bear or venison, or sometimes, when I’m really lucky, bison, or if I’ve found a good deal, grass-fed beef. You can make this recipe with any red meat, including elk or goat. It could probably be adapted for pork or chicken as well. Changing the kind of meat will of course change the flavor of the finished dish, but it will be good no matter what kind of meat you use. The original version, from Scott Conant’s Scarpetta cookbook (the recipe was posted on the Food Network), was meatless. You might want to follow the link to the original recipe to decide whether or not you’d like it without meat, but I can guarantee you that even with the addition of meat, my adaptation is simpler.
Why add meat? Well, if I’m going to consume as many carbs as polenta contains (and I really shouldn’t even so), I have to balance those carbs with plenty of protein, more than mushrooms provide. And bear, according to my expert hunter son, contains the highest levels of protein of all red meats. I have not been able to find a scientific study confirming this, but it makes sense to me since bears are constantly on the move, and their bodies are all muscle. The black bears in our California mountains are omnivores, but few of them reach the huge size of bears with a more plentiful food supply, like Alaskan salmon. Our bears typically eat little fish, but lots of grubs, berries, and some carrion. If they haven’t been raiding campground dumpsters, they are very lean, and very good eating. Take a look at the picture below of the bear round steak (deboned by the butcher, darn it), and I’ll bet you’ll be surprised. There’s not a bit of fat on that meat. It’s all lean muscle, which means it’s going to take some low, slow cooking.
In addition to adding meat, I had to change the original recipe because I’m not a rich chef. I don’t have access to some of the ingredients Scott Conant uses. (Boy, would I love to try this dish in his restaurant and compare it to my bear and mushroom fricassee!) The original recipe calls for shallots, which are pricey where I live, so I used a sweet white onion. The recipe also calls for a Chicken Reduction, which sounds amazing, but I didn’t have time to make that and didn’t want to use my homemade turkey stock (I have other plans for it), or my homemade chicken stock (because it has chicken meat in it for soup), nor did I have access to the substitutes mentioned in the original recipe. So I used some of the roasted vegetable stock I made last week: 3 bags of frozen onion, celery, and carrot scraps and peelings, roasted at 425 degrees with salt, pepper, and a little olive oil, and then covered with water in a pot, cooked down, and strained. This stock is so rich and delicious, you’d never know it was made with scraps, and I doubt the Chicken Reduction could be that much better.
The original recipe also calls for a mix of half milk and half heavy cream. Well, that’s half & half, which I can get for half the price of the same amount of milk and cream. Scott Conant’s recipe used a mix of domestic and wild mushrooms. When I priced mushrooms in our little town, the few exotic species were something like $8.99 for 4 ounces. I can’t afford that! But I did find a deal on sliced crimini mushrooms (baby portabellas), and I stretched those with some sliced white button mushrooms, the red-headed, bastard stepchild of mushrooms according to many famous chefs, but button mushrooms will still give some flavor and good meatiness. Of course, the recipe calls for Parmigiano-Reggiano. My budget can’t handle that, even if I knew where to get it where I live, but I can get tubs of freshly-grated domestic parm at Grocery Outlet (sometimes I can get chunks of it fresh and grate my own, but not this time), so that’s what I used. My chives aren’t up in the garden yet, and I wasn’t going to make a special trip to town to buy chives for a garnish, although it would have made the dish a little dressier. Finally, I cut the polenta recipe in half. The fricassee serves 4, but the polenta recipe said it made 8-10 servings. That’s a lot of polenta, and while there are a lot of things you can do with leftover polenta, I don’t need the extra temptation, nor did I need to buy that much milk, cream, or half & half. And the altered proportions worked perfectly: it made the right amount of polenta to serve with the amount of fricassee.
Even though I’ve simplified this recipe and used less expensive, more common ingredients (except for the bear), it still is not something I’d want to make and serve to guests because it is pretty time-consuming (although well-worth the time), and requires quite a bit of attention. But if you’re staying home on St. Valentine’s Day and thinking about a special meal for your sweetie, this one qualifies. You do have to tend the polenta, stirring it every 15-20 minutes for a couple of hours. The fricassee simmers away on its own after you get all the ingredients together. I hope you’ll set aside some time to try this dish, because it is truly memorable.
Bear and Mushroom Fricassee with Creamy Polenta
For the fricassee:
1 lb. of red meat, such as round steak (you can use any of the meats mentioned above, but beef will probably be the choice of most).
Mix the next five (or four) ingredients together for the rub for the meat.
¼ teaspoon crushed dried thyme
Pinch of red pepper flakes OR 1/8 teaspoon cayenne pepper (I used my Nigerian ground red pepper)
½ teaspoon kosher salt
¼ teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
1 tablespoon dried tomato skin powder (optional, will discuss a replacement below)
6 tablespoons of olive oil (I used my rosemary-infused olive oil and omitted the rosemary below)
1 clove garlic, minced finely
1 sweet white onion, chopped
10-12 oz. cleaned, sliced mushrooms (I used crimini and white button)
Several sprigs of fresh thyme, one bay leaf, and one sprig of fresh rosemary
½ cup of dry white wine
2 cups of chicken or vegetable stock (I used the vegetable stock I made last week—see above)
1 tablespoon tomato paste
1 tablespoon butter plus ½ tablespoon olive oil for searing meat
For the polenta:
4 cups half & half
1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt
½ cup coarse polenta
2 tablespoons butter
¼ cup grated parmesan cheese
Pat meat dry, trim off any fat or silver skin, cut into cubes. (Because my bear round steak was so lean, I left it to marinate whole and cubed it up just before searing off.) Mix rub ingredients together, sprinkle on meat, wrap in plastic or place in zipper top bag, refrigerate for at least 1 hour, up to 8 hours. Remove meat from fridge at least 15 minutes before ready to sear.
Heat 6 tablespoons of olive oil on medium heat in large heavy pan (I used my old cast aluminum Dutch oven) with a tight-fitting lid. Add the chopped onions and sauté until they begin to turn golden. Add garlic and mushrooms, cook and stir until mushrooms have begun to release some liquid. Remove mushrooms and onions from the pan, scraping out all the little pieces; set aside.
In the same pan, heat 1 tablespoon butter and ½ tablespoon olive oil; sear meat cubes until brown.
Deglaze the pan with ½ cup dry white wine. Add the stock, the fresh herbs, and add the mushrooms and onions and all the collected liquid back into the pan. Add the tomato paste and stir well to blend. (I used my dried tomato skin powder again, 2 tablespoons of it, but the tomato paste will give a similar, even richer flavor.)
Reduce heat to medium low (you want a good simmer) and cover with the lid, leaving it cracked just a bit to let the sauce reduce. Keep an eye on this, and add a little more stock if it cooks too dry, then cover tightly and reduce heat to low to hold it. Simmer until meat is tender, about 1 ½ – 2 hours, and there is still enough sauce to coat the meat and mushrooms. This should be saucy but not watery, and now is the time to taste the sauce for seasoning, adding more salt if necessary. You can see from the photo below what the consistency of the sauce should be after it reduces and just before serving.
When the meat is simmering, start the polenta. This is a slow-cooking polenta, but boy, is it worth it. It does take a bit of attention, especially at first.
In a medium-sized saucepan with a heavy bottom, heat 4 cups of half & half on medium-high heat, stirring with a wooden spoon until it begins to steam, then whisking until it gets foamy and is about to boil. When the half & half is foamy, whisk in 1 ½ teaspoons kosher salt, and slowly sprinkle in polenta a little at a time, whisking until all the polenta is in the pan. Continue to whisk the polenta until it thickens, about 8 minutes. Switch back to the wooden spoon, turn the heat down to medium, and stir the polenta until it is bubbling and getting thick, about 5 more minutes. Reduce the heat to low, cover with a tight-fitting lid, and continue to cook, stirring every 15 minutes or so. If it starts to stick to the bottom of the pan, lower the heat a little more. The polenta should cook on low for about 1 ½ hours, at which time, the fricassee should be ready as well.
Just before serving, raise the heat under the polenta to medium and stir in 2 tablespoons of butter and ¼ cup of parmesan cheese. When the butter is melted and the cheese is incorporated, remove from heat. It will be very thick and rich and almost sweet.
To serve, place about ½-1 cup of cooked polenta in a wide bowl or deep plate. Make a well in the center, and fill the well with about ½-1 cup of fricassee and sauce. (I have more plates and bowls than I can possibly use unless my entire extended family comes to visit, but I do not have big, restaurant-style, shallow bowls, which would be perfect for serving this dish, so I used a deep plate.) Dennis and I had a green salad to start, and I poured a glass of wine.
And then, I closed my eyes on the first bite and had a moment. I deserved it. And so do you.