For this soft polenta dish, creamy, cheesy, irresistible Italian polenta, similar to American grits, is cooked slowly until impossible soft and then is topped with all kinds of sauteed mushrooms.
Most people are potato crazed; I am polenta crazed. Soft polenta is as versatile as mashed potatoes — mix it with cheese, mushrooms, vegetables, even lobster. The key is to add enough butter so that it’s irresistibly rich. I remember once eating soft polenta with roast pork at Chef Gualtiero Marchesi’s three-star Michelin restaurant in Milan, Italy, in the early 1990s, and when we asked for seconds, they brought the pot from the kitchen, and scooped the golden polenta straight onto our plates.
Polenta is cornmeal cooked with liquid — usually water or stock — until it thickens. A careful cook stirs it with a wooden spoon, never altering the direction of the stir. Soft polenta has the consistency of hot cereal, while firm polenta, which is cooked with less liquid, cools to form a firm, sliceable block. In Italy, firm polenta is traditionally sliced with a length of taut string. Both types of polenta can be sauteed, grilled, baked, or fried and served as a side dish or as part of a main course. I like to serve it as an amuse with a tumble of earthy mushrooms cooked with shallots until softened. When you select polenta meal for this recipe, try to buy a good imported brand. If you cannot find it, substitute stone-ground domestic cornmeal. Try not to buy instant polenta, which never quite achieves the desired consistency.–Rick Tramonto with Mary Goodbody
LC NOT THAT KIND OF ‘SHROOM NOTE
This recipe calls for a mix of wild and exotic mushrooms, and if you wanted to sub your personal favorites in place of any of them, we wouldn’t tell. The polenta is ready to make best friends with any variety of ‘shroom you care to mention – except that kind. You know, the kind you might find in a Woodstock-goer’s rucksack. When we say ‘forest mushrooms’, we’re not hinting at anything. This recipe is magical enough without any outside assistance.
Soft Polenta with Forest Mushrooms
- 1/2 cup polenta meal or cornmeal
- 2 1/2 cups heavy cream
- 2 tablespoons grapeseed oil
- 1/4 cup chopped shiitake mushrooms
- 1/4 cup chopped black trumpet or chanterelle mushrooms
- 1/4 cup chopped oyster mushrooms
- 2 garlic cloves finely chopped
- 2 shallots finely chopped
- 1 bay leaf
- 3 tablespoons dry white wine
- Salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 3 tablespoons grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese or more
- 2 tablespoons unsalted butter
- Put the polenta meal and cream in a large saucepan and bring to a boil over medium-high heat. Reduce the heat to low and simmer for 45 minutes, stirring occasionally to prevent the bottom from burning.
- Heat the oil in a large sauté pan over medium-high heat. When the oil is hot, add the mushrooms and sauté for 10 to 15 minutes or until the mushrooms are browned and softened. Add the garlic, shallots, and bay leaf and cook for an additional 3 minutes or until the garlic and shallots are softened. Add the white wine while stirring the bottom of the pan with a wooden spoon to dissolve any browned solids into the liquid.
- Remove from the heat, remove and discard the bay leaf, and season to taste with salt and pepper. Cover to keep warm.
- Add the cheese and butter to the warm polenta. Stir until the butter melts and the cheese is incorporated. Taste and add more cheese, if desired.
- To serve, arrange a mound of polenta on a small plate or in small bowls. Top with some of the mixed mushroom saute. Repeat to make 5 to 9 more servings.
Recipe Testers’ Reviews
We unexpectedly found fresh wild chanterelles at a market recently and I just knew I had to make them with polenta. This recipe really showcased the wild mushrooms (we also used hen-of-the-woods) yet the creamy polenta refused to fade from the spotlight. It was luxuriant, rich, decadent, smooth, and positively irresistible.
The added Parmesan really didn’t hurt, either. Cream, butter, and cheese—not the healthiest ingredients out there, especially as they were in profusion here, but it was healthy for my soul. And the mushrooms! They were simply sautéed, mixed with shallots and garlic and bay leaves, and deglazed with white wine. This is restaurant-quality food. It looked like it, too. I served it with simple steamed broccoli so at least I could feel satisfied that it was, after all, a little healthier. Or so I convinced myself…. Today’s lunch was leftover creamy cheesy polenta (alas, the mushrooms were all eaten, but it was all I wanted). And it satisfied.
Originally published April 16, 2002