POLENTA WITH LAMB BOLOGNESE

October 24, 2013

I wake up every morning grateful.

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In the few moments that it takes for my brain to make sense of my surroundings and calibrate to the time and place, I still experience a residual moment of panic, a kind of pre-dread, a preparing for dread.  But just as the knot is about to form in my stomach, it releases.  You’re okay, I realize.  There’s nothing to be anxious about.  Everything is actually fine.

This time last year I was struggling with the very sudden outset of very intense depression and anxiety.  When I woke up each morning, instead of the knot in my stomach loosening, it would tighten.  The start of each day was a struggle, as if I were deep inside a hole that I couldn’t see a way out of; on top of that, I felt wrong for feeling bad in the first place, as if I “should” feel better, “should” be able to muscle my way out of the situation.  And on top of everything else, I felt terror—deep terror—that I would always feel this way, that I would never get back to being—not even happy, just okay.  I’ve never been so scared of anything before or since.

I mention this not only to mark the anniversary of what I only half-jokingly call my breakdown, but also because I bet there is a fair chance that someone who reads, or will read this blog, has felt or is feeling the same way.  If that applies to you, I know that everything I say will ring at least a little bit false and hollow; I get that, I remember that feeling.  But please do me this one favor; do not be so stubborn as to resist asking for help.  You can’t fight this monster on your own.  You have to get out of the hole first, and there are people (and perhaps also chemicals, as is/was the case for me) that can help pull you out.  Once you’re out, you can do the work of figuring out how not to get back in.  But you’ve got to get out, first.

My story is not all that unique or even noteworthy, but I find, frustratingly, that despite what we know about brains and how they can go awry, we still as a culture stigmatize mental health in a way that I find baffling.  We have no trouble discussing our various physical ailments or seeking treatment for illness that beset the body, and so should it be, too, that we discuss and check up on our inner workings without shame or guilt.

If it’s not you, but someone in your life, who is struggling with anxiety and/or depression, please know that you can make a difference.  I honestly would not have been able to make it through those months without the unconditional love and support of Jill and my friends; never have I been more vulnerable or broken open, so in need of care.  By listening, by encouraging me to seek help, and by holding the possibility of feeling better when I could not hold it for myself—they each carried me through that time, reminding me of who I was when I had forgotten.  I’ll never forget the afternoon that dear friend Megan met me at my psychiatrist’s office for my first appointment.  She didn’t do much—brought me a coffee, sat in the waiting room while I met with the doctor, and walked me back to my car—but her presence made all the difference.

I wake up every morning grateful, almost breathless with gratitude on some days.  To not feel the way that I felt is a relief and a joy.  If you are not yet there yourself, I promise you there is a way.  I—and all those who care about you—will hold the space for you, until you arrive to claim it.

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POLENTA WITH LAMB BOLOGNESE

Polenta is one of my favorite party tricks for fall; tired of all the summer pastas and burnt out on quinoa, sometimes you just need something hearty and creamy and this is the ticket.  We love lamb in my family, but you could substitute ground beef, pork, or turkey based on your preferences.  You could also sneak some wilted greens (spinach, chard) into the sauce, if you’re feeling virtuous–we weren’t.

for the bolognese:

1 yellow onion, diced
4-5 cloves garlic, minced
1 large carrot, shredded
large handful baby portabella mushrooms, roughly chopped
1 24-oz. can whole San Marzano tomatoes
¼ cup red wine
1 lb. ground lamb
1 tsp. dried oregano
½ tsp. dried parsley
salt & pepper
olive oil

for the polenta:

2 cups polenta
6 cups water
large pat of butter (~2 T)
salt

serve with: grated Parmiagano Reggiano

In large, heavy-bottomed pot (I used Jill’s grandmother’s cast-iron Dutch oven, as I do whenever I want to invoke good cooking ju-ju), brown the lamb—in batches if need be—over medium-high heat, with a bit of olive oil to avoid sticking, breaking the meat into clumps with a wooden spoon.

Once cooked through, turn the heat down to medium and use a slotted spoon to move the ground meat to a heatproof bowl, setting aside for later.  You’ll probably have quite a bit of lovely lamb fat in the bottom of your pot at this point; you may wish to leave it all there, but I chose to pour out all but about a tablespoon or so.  To this, I added a few generous glugs of olive oil and tossed in the onions & garlic, sautéing until very fragrant and translucent.  Stir in the carrot and mushrooms, cooking until both have given up their liquid and the entire mixture has reduced in volume, approximately 6-8 minutes.

Now, pour in that red wine—and feel free to pour some for yourself, too—and turn the heat down a bit, allowing everything to simmer until about half of the wine is gone.  From here, add the tomatoes, gently breaking them up with your spoon, and perhaps fill the empty tomato can with a bit of water and add that to the pot, too.

Return the ground lamb to the pot, season with oregano, parsley, salt, & pepper, and bring the sauce to a simmer.  Cover partway with a lid, off-setting it just a bit so that the sauce will reduce.  Cook for as long as you can—at least 45 minutes and up to several hours, knowing that the sauce gets better the longer it cooks.

About a half hour before you’d like to eat, make the polenta.  Bring six cups of salted water to a boil; add the polenta and stir vigorously, turning the heat down to medium-low.  Cover the polenta and allow it to cook, stirring occasionally, until it reaches the desired consistency; I find that 30 minutes is just about right for me, but you can let it go longer, as it will continue to thicken.

Before serving, stir in a knob of butter and also a bit of salt to taste.  At this point, your polenta will make a creamy bed, perfect for topping with your Bolognese.  Left alone, the polenta will firm up, but—this isn’t a bad thing!  Use it to your advantage by greasing a square pan with olive oil and pouring still-warm polenta into it.  As it cools, the polenta will harden, allowing you to cut it into squares and grill, pan-fry, or roast it in the oven.  I love a square of leftover polenta, browned in a pan with olive oil and topped with a fried egg & plenty of Parmesan cheese: the perfect savory winter breakfast!

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2 Comments »

  1. Thank you for sharing your journey. You write with such clarity and strength that I would wish all who struggle with depression could read your story.

    I also love that you add a recipe to your post. For this one, I will substitute millet for the polenta. I am allergic to corn and avoid polenta. Millet responds in much the manner of polenta when boiled, and it satisfies my craving for a starch base that is not pasta or quinoa. It firms up and can be sliced for frying as you recommend for the polenta.

    Comment by Sue Wittie — October 24, 2013 @ 10:10 pm

  2. I’ve been struggling with hating on my work situation – fighting stress, anxiety, and even flirting with depression. Your post is timely. Tonight I got the call that one of our coworkers was killed last night in a one vehicle wreck.

    I’ve already taken steps to change my situation – but things happen in due course. Sometimes it’s a matter of focusing on the moment to moment. xoxo

    Life is too short.

    Comment by Mel — October 27, 2013 @ 7:06 pm

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