I really enjoy polenta. In fact, I like corn generally. Corn on the cob, corn bread, corn muffins, corn pudding, creamed corn, it’s all good to me. It’s probably my Midwestern upbringing coupled with the four years we spent living amidst the cornfields in rural Indiana. Unfortunately for me, my dear husbanders (pronounced huz-band-erz, emphasis on the “band”, not on the “huz”) does not enjoy corn as much as I do. Nonetheless, being the supportive and loving man that he is, he graciously and gratefully eats almost anything I put in front of him.
I was thrilled to see Polenta as an item on the Food List Challenge because it was the perfect excuse to make it. Basic polenta is pretty simple and makes a nice substitute for traditional starches served in the US, like potatoes or rice. You can keep it pretty plain, with some butter, salt and pepper, or amp up the flavor with herbs and cheeses. Polenta can be served soft and somewhat mushy or baked/grilled which often provides a firmer more solid texture.
In doing some reading about polenta, I discovered that variations on cooked cornmeal is served in many parts of the world. According to Harold McGee in his book, On Food and Cooking – The Science and Lore of the Kitchen, cooking polenta using a long, slow method develops a deeper corn flavor because of the high heat at the bottom and the exposure to air at the top. To avoid burning the polenta, a basic polenta on the stove needs constant stirring. The same flavor can also achieved by putting a just-thickened polenta into the oven on low heat. Taking this information, I’ve included two recipes for a pretty simple polenta below, using both a stove-top only technique and a stove and oven technique.
The basic recipe below is just that, relatively quick, easy, and plain. It pairs well with stews and sauces. The baked recipe is more substantial, prepared with milk, cheese, and baked. There are many variations off of these two recipes. For example, try adding different herbs and cheeses to the basic recipe. The baked recipe can be made with or without the mushrooms, and experiment by adding peppers, broccoli or even roasted squash to the polenta before baking. These two preparations are just starting points!
4 cups water
1 tablespoon unsalted butter
1 bay leaf
1 tablespoon coarse salt
1½ cups coarse yellow cornmeal
1 teaspoon fresh flat leaf parsley, coarsely chopped
freshly ground pepper
In a medium heavy bottomed pan, bring the water, butter, bay leaf and salt to simmer over medium heat. Slowly, sift the corn meal into the pot, using a sprinkling motion with the fingers of one hand. Continue adding the cornmeal until all of it is added to the pot, whisking constantly. Reduce the heat to medium low.
Continue to stir consistently, until the polenta is smooth and thick and pulls away from the sides of the pan as it is stirred, about 30 minutes.
The bottom of the polenta will scorch if you leave it without stirring it. Also, take care to stir or whisk the polenta with a utensil that will reach the corners of the pot.
Take the polenta off of the heat, discard the bay leaf and mix in the fresh parsley reserving a little bit of the parsley to sprinkle on top before serving. Transfer the polenta to a serving bowl and sprinkle the remaining parsley on top. TIP: To serve the polenta, dip a large spoon into hot water before scooping the polenta onto dishes.
BAKED POLENTA WITH GOUDA AND BRAISED MUSHROOMS
(Adapted from Huffington Post’s Kitchen Daily News)
2 1/2 cups milk (I used skim milk, whole milk will give a richer flavor)
1/2 cup cornmeal
2 eggs, beaten
½ cup of smoked Gouda, shredded
1/2 teaspoon dried, crushed sage
1/2 teaspoon red pepper flakes
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 medium onion, chopped
2 cloves garlic, smashed
2 cups mixed mushrooms, whole or halved
1 tablespoon cornstarch
1/4 cup vegetable stock
2 tablespoons red wine
flat-leaf parsley, chopped for sprinkling
For the Polenta:
Preheat oven to 400F. In a large saucepan over a medium heat, bring the milk to a gentle boil. Add the cornmeal and 1 teaspoon of salt , then reduce the heat to low and whisk consistently until the mixture thickens. Watch this carefully so it doesn’t burn.
In a medium bowl, whisk the eggs and add a few tablespoons of the hot polenta to temper the eggs.
Take the remaining polenta off of the heat and add the egg mixture to the remaining hot polenta and whisk until smooth.
Stir in the shredded Gouda. (Still off of the heat).
Stir in the sage, red pepper flakes and some freshly ground pepper (about 1/2 teaspoon).
Empty the polenta and cheese mixture into a lightly greased baking pan and bake for 25-35 minutes or until crisp and golden.
For the mushrooms:
In a large saute pan over a medium to low heat, heat the butter and oil. Add the onions and cook gently until softened.
Stir in the garlic, then add the mushrooms and stir-fry until just cooked.
In the meantime, mix the cornstarch with 2-3 tablespoons of vegetable stock to make a smooth paste, this is called “slaking”. Set aside.
Add the remaining stock to the pan with the mushrooms and onions and bring to a light boil. Next, whisk in the slaked cornstarch and keep whisking until the mixture thickens slightly.
Add the port and the balsamic vinegar, then simmer for a few more minutes. Salt and pepper to taste.
Serve the mushrooms over the baked polenta and sprinkle with parsley.