Wild Spring Mushrooms and Grilled Asparagus on Parmesan-Polenta Toasts

I really wanted grits.

I started thinking about grits after I made black-eyed peas the other day, which got me once again in the mood for food with a Southern accent, which is what I grew up with. I was also thinking of morels and asparagus, because I’d seen Mark Bittman on The New York Times/Food section website make a lovely, creamy Frenchy dish with the two of them.

I’m always thinking of asparagus. I even think about asparagus in the winter. Come January, it’s a month-by-month countdown to when I can enjoy asparagus again. I love asparagus that much.

Normally, I eat asparagus in its most simple form – grilled, drizzled with olive oil and a bit of sea salt and pepper. I like to squeeze a bit of lemon juice on it, too. Eating asparagus spears one by one, with my fingers, is one of spring’s most supreme joys.

But I’m open to mixing things up.

Morels being in season, and still hideously expensive (I found some priced 6.95e/100 grams, which is about 10 mushrooms), I decided, hey, if not now, when? Throw in some shitakes, while you’re at it, will ya?

And so, with my mushrooms and my asparagus, I started daydreaming about what I could do with them, together.

I could do ravioli with mushrooms and asparagus, I thought. A ravioli with one and a sauce with the other, perhaps. Or maybe a simple lasagna, just layers of pasta and chunky mushrooms and asparagus, stacked like a mille feuille. Or a mille feuille-inspired veggie thing – asparagus layers in between mushrooms. Yes, I could do that, I thought, as I crested the hill at Parc St. Cloud one morning, as Rose was running in front of me with a big stick. But is that what I really wanted to do with them?

My mind kept drifting back to grits. Cheese grits, to be specific.

Of course, there are no grits around Paris, but there’s something damn close, thanks to our next-door-neighbors. Polenta.

I dug around my cookbooks, and on the internet, too. Finally, I found a recipe in an old Bon Appetit that sounded a lot like what I had in mind; so I tweaked and changed a few things here and there and came up with the recipe below. I liked the idea of cooking the polenta, letting it cool, cutting it into squares and frying it up a bit until crisp. This gave me the texture that I thought that the dish needed on the bottom, since I’d put the slightly crispy grilled asparagus on top, and the creamy mushroom mixture underneath that. I opted for a sauce with ricotta instead of cream.

I mixed in some shitakes to extend the mushrooms a bit. You may want to do the same thing, or come up with your own mushroom mix, depending on what’s in season.

Next time, I’m going to just add the grilled asparagus to the mushrooms, which means I won’t be able to eat them with my fingers. Just this once, they probably won’t mind.

Wild Spring Mushrooms & Grilled Asparagus on Parmesean-Polenta Toasts

1 cup polenta

2 cups chicken broth

2 cups whole mlk

½ cup parmesan cheese
2 tablespoons butter
10-20 morel mushrooms (plus others if you’d like)
4 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons butter
2 shallots, chopped fine
½ cup ricotta
¼ cup parmesan cheese
¼ cup flat-leaf parsley
1 bunch asparagus, ends trimmed
2 tablespoons olive oil
sea salt and pepper

Make your polenta:

1. Butter 13 x 9 x 1 inch baking sheet. Put milk and broth in heavy saucepan and turn heat on medium.

2. When it boils, add polenta, stirring constantly (polenta will thicken up quickly).

3. Pour polenta into baking sheet and let cool for at least an hour.

4. When ready to make squares, simply cut into size of your choice, and throw on a hot griddle, drizzled with a bit of olive oil.

Make your mushrooms:

1. Melt butter with olive oil in skillet over medium-high heat. Add shallots and mushrooms and cook until mushrooms are browned, about 5-10 minutes.

2. Add balsamic vinegar and combine. Season with salt and pepper. (Here, you may want to put the mushrooms in a container and stick in the fridge until ready to assemble. When ready to eat, pick up with #3, next.)

3. With mushrooms in skillet, add chicken broth and ricotta and stir until blended and warmed through.

4. Finally, add a bit of the chopped parsley to the mushroom mixture (you may also want to add a bit of parsley at the end; it’s so pretty!)

Roast your asparagus:

Preheat oven to 425 degrees.

1. Snap the ends off of the asparagus and line on a cookie sheet.

2. Drizzle with olive oil, sea salt and pepper and cook for 10-20 minutes, turning about halfway through.

To assemble the dish:

1. Put one or two crispy polenta cakes on a plate.

2. Top with mushrooms.

3. Now lean some asparagus against all of this, and sprinkle some of the flat-leaf parsley all around.