There’s an Italian restaurant near my apartment that I visit every few months which serves up basic, clean, well done food. Debate has ensued throughout the inter webs as to whether this restaurant is worthy of the praise it gets, but I’ll leave that up to each person’s individual preference; all I know is that I’ve loved every meal I had there, and that each time I visit and try something new, I’m always extremely satisfied with what I’ve ordered.
The last time I went to Gennaro’s, a few months ago, there was a new appetizer on the menu: creamy polenta with sauteed mushrooms and tomatoes drizzled with truffle oil. It was sublime. It possessed a rich, earthiness from the mushrooms and truffle oil, and was lightened slightly by the creamy, cheesy polenta bed on which the mushrooms lay. To say that we happily finished the dish is an understatement; our dish was completely clean by the end of it.
Even though mushrooms over polenta is not a foreign combination and has been done many times before, I was intrigued enough about it to want to try a variation of the recipe at home. Since I’d never personally made polenta, I thought this would be the perfect opportunity for me to cook something out of my personal realm and see how it would turn out. And, thankfully, the results were pretty good.
This polenta recipe will give you a bowl of warm goodness that turns out very well. It’s creamy, heart warming, and, in a way, refreshing in its simplicity. It doesn’t even need to be covered with the mushroom ragout that I made in order to be a delicious meal or accompaniment. It’s sturdy and hearty on its own.
The recipe below yields a LOT of polenta, so if you’re not planning on feeding 4-6 people with it, I’d cut the recipe in half. Otherwise you’ll have way too much and you might not know what to do with it. The leftovers can be spread out on a lightly oiled sheet pan and baked, or you can put it back on the stove at another time and add a bit of water, cream, or butter to get it going again. (This will sort of take away the purity of the polenta, but I suppose it’s better than wasting the leftovers, if that’s your only other option.)
Creamy Polenta with Mushroom Ragout
Yield: 4 servings
Total Time: 2 hours
For the polenta:
Adapted from The Zuni Cafe Cookbook
5 cups water
1 cup coarsley ground polenta
2 tsp. kosher salt
1 tbsp. unsalted butter
Parmaggiano-Reggiano, grated (optional)
For the mushroom ragout:
Adapted from Giada De Laurentiis
1 tbsp extra virgin olive oil
8 oz cremini mushrooms, chopped (I used a mixture of shiitake, cremini & oyster mushrooms)
1/2 cup chopped red onion
kosher salt, to taste
1/4 tsp black pepper, plus more for seasoning
1 clove garlic, minced finely
3/4 cup dry Marsala
1/2 tsp all purpose flour
2 tbsp unsalted butter
2 tbsp fresh Italian parsley, chopped finely
Simmer the water in a large saucepan. Whisk in the polenta until the water returns to a simmer. Lower the heat to a point where the polenta reacts by only bubbling every few seconds, not continuously. (I had to practically turn my stove off at this point, it was as low as it could go.) Cook the polenta uncovered for an hour, stirring occasionally, until the polenta is thick without becoming too stiff. If necessary, thin out your polenta with a tbsp. or so of water. (I had to add quite a bit of water throughout the cooking process because my polenta was getting way too thick. You might not have this problem though.) Once finished, add salt and butter and stir well. Adjust the seasonings you see fit.
Put the polenta onto a double boiler over simmering water (but not boiling). Wrap the top of the polenta pot with plastic wrap and then cover with a lid. Leave the polenta over the double boiler for a half hour, or until you’re ready to serve a few hours later. I don’t have a double boiler so I just simmered some water in a smaller sauce pan than the one in which I had the polenta, then set the polenta pot on top of the smaller one. It was kind of sketchy, but it worked fine and we all survived.
While the polenta is doing its thing, heat a large frying pan over medium-high heat. Add the mushrooms and the onion and sprinkle a pinch or two of salt and 1/4 tsp of pepper into the pan and saute until the mushrooms are soft and darken a bit in color, about 8 minutes. Add the garlic and saute for another 2 minutes. Lower the heat to medium-low and add the marsala. Cover the pan and allow to simmer for 5 minutes until the liquid has reduced. In a small separate bowl, mix the butter and flour together into a paste, and then add it to the mushroom mixture. The sauce should thicken when you add this after about 2 minutes. Remove the mushroom mixture from the heat and then stir in the parsley. Season with salt and pepper, to taste.
Once the polenta and the mushroom ragout are both finished, add the polenta to a bowl and top with parmiggiano-reggiano if you wish, or just spoon some of the mushroom ragout. Serve warm.