Do you know about polenta? We mean, do you KNOW about it? Not like, have you heard the word used in a sentence, could you point it out in a lineup. But do you know how great it is, how easy it is to make, how you should be eating it way more than you are now? Because if not, it’s time.
For instance, do you know that polenta is delicious and filling and homey? Do you know that it can be swapped in for pasta or grains in just about any bowl for a filling meal (and a gluten-free one at that, if that’s your thing), or that it makes an amazing side dish all on its own? Do you know that it’s made of—wait for it—corn? (Hence, the gluten-free-ness.) Do you know that you should definitely be adding it to your list of meal staples? Doing so might just help you avoid food fatigue with your flagging roster of go-to dishes, and it will definitely make your mouth happy.
If you answered no to any of the above questions, we’re here for you. This is your polenta crash course. The day you learn that the thing you’ve been missing in your life and your stomach, the thing that fits in that weirdly shaped hole in your otherwise whole heart is actually: polenta.
Polenta is one of those beautiful blank slate ingredients. You can turn it into so many things. It’s even more versatile than something like pasta or rice because not only can you make it sweet or savory, mix in anything you can dream up or pile whatever you like on top, but you can also make it creamy, baked, fried, soft, or crispy.
This time of year, our favorite style of polenta—and also the easiest, it just so happens, since it’s the first step in turning it into all other forms—is warm and soft and creamy: cooked in milk and water until the grains turn into a cream-of-wheat-like mixture, at which point we fold in Parmesan cheese and butter to make that softness and creaminess even more so—and to make it really, really tasty. It’s sort of like Italian grits.
So, once you’ve got a bowl of this hot goodness, what to do with it? Well, you can eat it as is and be all kinds of happy. Orrrr. You can go one step further, and put something equally phenomenal on top… Like maybe an awesome Wild Mushroom Ragu? Yeah, that sounds about right for a super amazing, hearty winter meal, which just so happens, through no ingredient-swapping or fiddling, to also be vegetarian and gluten-free.
Pretty good, huh?
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Parmesan Polenta + Wild Mushroom Ragu
Notes: For the ragu: depending on the size of your sauté pan, you’ll need to brown the mushrooms in 2 or 3 batches so they don’t steam and get soggy, but actually, you know, sauté.
For the polenta: We used quick-cooking polenta and added as much milk as needed for softer consistency. Especially on a weeknight, we almost always use quick-cooking or instant polenta, which it cooks up in a matter of minutes, but if you want to make it the old fashioned way, use a medium-grind cornmeal with a ratio of 4–5 cups of water, milk, or broth or any combination of liquid to 1 cup of cornmeal.
And a tip: Just about every polenta recipe you read says to add the polenta to boiling liquid. You can do that, but to produce a totally lump-free polenta—the only kind you want to eat—we always whisk polenta into cold water/broth/milk, and then bring the mixture to a boil. Trust us, it works like magic: After that, continue cooking according to your recipe.
– A large sauté pan
– A 4-quart saucepan
– 1 ½ pounds mixed wild mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
– 1 ½–2 tbs extra virgin olive oil
– 4 cloves garlic, smashed and chopped
– 3 tbs dry sherry or red wine
– 2 cups jarred or (pba-free) canned whole tomatoes with their juice
– small bunch of fresh thyme
– 1/4 cup parsley, minced
– red pepper flakes to taste
– salt and pepper to taste
– Quick-cooking polenta for 4 servings. (We used a 9.2 oz box for 4. Check the directions on your package and see notes above.)
– 1/3 cup grated Parmesan cheese
– 2–3 cups milk + maybe a bit more, as needed
– 1 tbs butter
– salt to taste
To make the ragu:
* Heat a large sauté pan over medium high heat. Add 1/2 tbs of olive oil to the pan and heat. Then add as many mushrooms as your pan will hold without getting too crowded, plus a few sprigs of thyme.
* When the mushrooms start to brown, give them a stir, flipping them as you do. Add a little salt, black pepper, a pinch of red pepper flakes, and some of the garlic.
* When the mushrooms are golden brown, remove them to a bowl.
* If you’re cooking mushrooms in batches, repeat: adding a 1/2 tbs of oil to the pan for each batch until all the mushrooms are cooked, leaving the last batch in the pan. Add the cooked mushrooms in the bowl back into the pan. Give them all a stir.
* Pour in the sherry/wine. Continue stirring for a few minutes until the alcohol has evaporated.
* Add the tomatoes, breaking them up with a wooden spoon in the pan. When everything starts to simmer, reduce the heat to medium-low and cover. Cook for 10 to 15 minutes.
* Remove thyme sprigs.
* Turn the heat off, toss in the minced parsley, taste for seasoning and adjust if needed. Stir, then cover and keep warm.
* Heat your serving bowls in the microwave or on low heat in your oven. We like to use smaller soup bowls, which keep the polenta nice and hot longer.
To make the quick-cooking polenta:
* Follow the directions on your package for liquid quantity. See notes above.
* Add the milk and water to the saucepan where you’ll be cooking the polenta. Our package called for 4 cups of liquid but knowing we wanted a creamy mixture, we started with 2 ½ cups of water and 2 ½ cups of milk.
* Whisk in the polenta, and bring to a boil while constantly whisking. Continue to whisk as it simmers—it will cook up in just a few minutes.
* Since polenta will set up pretty quickly, we stirred in additional milk to make it really creamy and soft. Add a small splash at a time so you don’t make it to liquidy.
* When you’re satisfied with the consistency, remove from heat, stir in the butter, grated Parmesan, and salt to taste.
* Add the polenta to your warmed bowls and spoon on the mushrooms. Serve with additional Parmesan.
© 2015 Lee and Lou Cook. All rights reserved