Monday, October 8, 2007

Eats, Leaves, and Shoots: The Jess Hanebury Story

The inspiration for this week's blog was my dear roommate Jess' long-awaited return from the Land of Los Angeles, where she was shooting her very first TV commercials! Yay, Jess! And she's only home till the end of this week, and then she's back out on the road to shoot even more commercials! She's kind of a big deal.

Since it was a lazy Columbus Day, I thought I'd do some slow-cooked meat. I had been wanting to use my vintage crockpot (doesn't it sound so much more glam when you call it "vintage" rather than "old hand-me-down from the '70s"?), so I got a lovely roast (a bargain meat at just $2 per person - a $6 roast total) and jumped in.

I had also been dying to try cooking polenta, an Italian side dish of sorts - it's kind of like the grits we eat down South. It's just cornmeal , but it's now a staple in 4-star Italian restaurants, while it probably originated as a sort of "porridge" - a way to feed a lot of mouths for very little moolah.

I couldn't find the make-from-scratch polenta at the store, so I got some pre-made, the kind in the tube. It's already fully cooked, and it's packaged like cookie dough. You just cut off the plastic and heat it up however you like. I chose to pan-fry it in a little olive oil. It was already seasoned with a blend of Italian spices, so it was a cinch to make (and at less than $2.50, also a bargain). It's by a brand called Melissa's, which specializes in fresh, organic fare.

I call this dish: Jess' Juicy Italian Beef with Fried Polenta, Caramelized Mushrooms, Asparagus Spears, and Buttery Jus. Rolls off the tongue, eh?



1 beef roast
2 cans beef broth
1 cup red wine
1 medium yellow onion
1/2 bunch parsley
4 cloves garlic


1 bunch asparagus
drizzle olive oil
salt and pepper


1 tube pre-made polenta
a little olive oil


a few ladles full of the beef jus from Crockpot
1-2 T. of butter (depending on how bad you want to be)
2 T. olive oil
salt and pepper


About 4-5 hours before you want to eat, turn the crockpot on high. (My crockpot, as I said, is vintage, and only has 2 settings: HI and LO. Since I had about 4 hours instead of 8, I went for HI. More up-to-date models may have different settings.) Pour the two cans of beef broth and the cup of wine into the pot. Place the beef in the broth/ wine mixture. Slice the onion and put those in. Peel and lightly crush the garlic (just lay your knife on it, flat-side down, and bear down on it with the hel of your hand. It will stay intact, but will release more flavor than if it were just peeled). Throw in some parsley. You could also use any fresh herbs you like - sage would be nice, as would cilantro if you wanted some Mexican flair. Cover it and don't touch it or take the lid off for 4-5 hours. Seriously, go do something else. See a movie or something.


Put a few ladlefuls of the beef/wine jus in a medium saucepan and crank up the heat till it boils. Just let it boil and reduce till everything else is done cooking, adding more jus if too much boils away. (I started with about 1 cup of liquid and ended up with about 1/2 cup.)


About 30 minutes before you're ready to eat, slice about half of a 1-lb. container of button mushrooms. Heat olive oil in a skillet over high, and cook them - without moving them around in the pan for the first few minutes, and not very often in general - for about 7-8 minutes, until they're nicely caramelized (this means brown, and slightly sweet). When they're done, set them aside.


Preheat the oven to 400 degrees. Trim the ends off the asparagus spears. Place them in a shallow baking dish and drizzle a little olive oil over the top. Sprinkle some salt and pepper over it, then toss it around in the dish so all the seasoning and oil is evenly distributed. Bake for 8-10 minutes.


In a medium skillet, heat a little more olive oil (not too much - about 1 tablespoon) over medium heat. Slice the polenta into 3/4-inch slices, and fry them 2-3 minutes on each side.


Turn off the heat on the sauce and stir in a pat of butter. Cut pieces of the roast and place on a plate. Arrange the polenta and the asparagus around the beef, and top it with some mushrooms and jus-butter sauce. Eat!

My judges for today were, of course, Jess, since dinner was in her honor, and - you know it - Ross. Here's what they had to say:

JESS: It was awesome. Delicious. And hearty. The beef and the mushrooms were my favorite. If anyone could decide what to make for dinner every morning, you could make meals like this every day. I liked the polenta, but only when it soaked up the jus. Alone, it was just OK. And I like my asparagus mushier.

ROSS: The meat is so tender. This one of your best successes. But, asparagus is always better with a little parmesan grated on it.

Thanks, guys!


Guys, I gotta give this one 9 stars. It was really good. I rarely eat red meat, but when I do, I love every beefy bite. The meat was in fact very tender. And I couldn't believe how much flavor it had, even without salt and pepper! I agree with Jess about the polenta. I tasted it alone, and it was on the bland side - I would've salted it, but when it soaked up the juices, it was perfect. The mushrooms really added something, too - I was afraid they'd be sort of superfluous, but I think they really rounded out the flavors. And, this was one of the easiest, quickest (not counting the 4 hours I wasn't in the kitchen while the roast cooked), and most economical meals I've done on the blog.

NOTES: Next time, I might plate it differently. I would put the polenta on the bottom and place the beef and the jus directly on top of the polenta, so it immediately soaks up all the flavor. It's really great to know that you can have the main part of your meal done just with a little planning - just plop the meat in the crockpot before you go to work, set it on LO, and come home to a delicious-smelling house and an almost-complete hot meal.

BONUS: Here's a quick cool-weather meal idea. Before work one day, put a small whole roasting chicken into the crockpot with some chicken broth (2-3 cans maybe), and some white wine if you have some around. Set it on LO and go about your day. When you come home, cook some 5-minute Stove Top stuffing or Minute Rice and steam some frozen veggies in the microwave - green beans or broccoli maybe. Voila! A ten-minute dinner that rivals Mom's.

We ate beef. We watched Heroes. It was sort of magical.

Thanks for reading, guys! See you next time.
Bon voyage, Jess (again)!

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