When I made last week’s steaks with red wine-mushroom sauce, I decided to try out polenta as a side. It seemed a nice departure from the usual red meat accompaniment of potatoes and it gave me the chance to test a new recipe.
The concept behind the polenta is #29: Baking Soda Makes Beans and Grains Soft. Much of this deals with what baking soda does to beans (the alkalinity causes a chemical reaction that leads to the beans cooking faster and being more tender) but it is also applicable to cornmeal. Like with beans, water has to penetrate the cell walls in the endosperm of the corn kernel. Baking soda breaks down the pectin within the cells, allowing the grain to cook faster.
The first thing I will say about this is it makes a lot of polenta. When I cook with the intention of eating with another person, I tend to go ahead and cook a full four servings. That way there’s plenty for the dinner and some leftovers for us to split up or for me to use for lunches (I’m a huge fan of leftovers). When I looked in the pot after we had finished dinner, I was a bit aghast by how much was left. I had polenta for days. The upside was that, after a quick trip the grocery store, I could eat the leftover polenta with this fantastic mushroom topping.
The polenta itself is fairly simple. After bringing 7½ cups of water to boil, stir in 1½ teaspoons salt and a pinch of baking soda, then slowly pour in 1½ cups coarse-ground cornmeal in steady stream while stirring. Boil the mixture for 1 minute, while stirring, then reduce the heat to low and cover. After 5 minutes, whisk the polenta to get rid of any lumps, then cover and continue to cook it for about 25 minutes, until it’s soft. Remove the polenta from the heat, stir in 2 cups of grated Parmesan cheese and 2 tablespoons of butter, and salt and pepper to taste. Let it sit, covered, for 5 minutes so it’ll set up a little bit.
I realize now that this will give you 8 cups of polenta. I should have halved that. Oops.
A note on the cornmeal: you’ll want to use a coarse-ground cornmeal, not a fine cornmeal like Quaker’s. Bob’s Red Mill is the best I’ve found for this. Also, since the Parmesan is featured here, go ahead and spring for a hunk of real Parmigiano-Reggiano so you get the full piquant flavor of the cheese. This is not the place for pre-grated stuff in green cartons.
I’ve loved mushrooms since I was little (sauteed mushrooms in my omelets, please!), so I was secretly not disappointed to have the opportunity to try this topping. Now, while the recipes calls for 1 pound of wild mushrooms, I cheated and used only 8 ounces of a wild mushroom mix that I picked up at Whole Foods and 8 ounces of button mushrooms. Because wild mushrooms are expensive.
To get this going, heat up 2 tablespoons each butter and olive oil until shimmering. Add 1 small onion, finely chopped, and saute until softened and beginning to brown, about 5-7 minutes. Add 2 cloves minced garlic and 2 teaspoons minced fresh rosemary and cook 30 seconds longer. (Butter, olive oil, garlic, and rosemary – this cannot be bad!) Add your trimmed and sliced pound of mushrooms, mixture of your choosing, and let them cook, stirring occasionally, about 6 minutes until they start to release their juices. Add ½ cup chicken broth, salt and pepper to taste, and simmer the mixture until the sauce starts to thicken, about 8 more minutes, then serve over the hot polenta.
As a huge fan of meat, and in spite of being a huge fan of mushrooms, I’ve never quite understood how mushrooms can substitute for the taste of meat. I get it now. This was the meatiest non-meat thing I’ve ever eaten. The mushrooms were so flavorful, even with half of them being plain old buttons. I can imagine this changed up with some different herbs – thyme or oregano or sage would have been great – or with a good splash of white wine thrown in and cooked off. With vegetable broth instead of chicken, this would make an excellent vegetarian meal. As it is, it’s a filling and meaty satisfying meal for a Wednesday night.