Monday, June 6, 2011

Sunday Recipe: Polenta with Cremini Mushrooms

My Italian great-grandmother used to tell me funny folk tales, light, cautionary tales, mostly about the dangers of braggadocio and not keeping a clean house. Yup, these were the values passed on to me -- don't be a big mouth (or, as Gram used to say, 'a big bull-a-sheet,' her phrase for a big bull-shitter.) And also to always make the bed and do the dishes. In a funny way, that about sums up my entire world view -- if you have a clean kitchen and you aren't a big blowhard, you're probably a fine person.

What, you are by now asking yourself, does this have to do with food?
Well, one of the stories Gram used to love to tell me was about two fellows, sitting and talking on a Sunday evening. These guys are both poor, both workingmen or peasants, mind you. (I don't think Gram knew anybody who didn't fit that bill.) The one fellow is bragging about the amazing dinner he enjoyed at his mother's earlier that afternoon, going on and on about the variety of delicious goodies, but lingering at greatest length about the whole roasted chicken -- how succulent it was, how juicy. His buddy lets him ramble on, spin out his tale, all the while knowing he's completely full of it. And when his friend is sort of winding down about his rich repast, his buddy points out a big spot of polenta on his tie.

Ah, polenta -- cheap and filling, the food of the masses, the staple of the peasant diet -- and, in Gram's story, short-hand for the 'gotcha' moment for a guy who had eaten a necessarily frugal Sunday dinner, not roasted chicken, as he had extravagantly claimed. (At some point in the mid-1990's polenta hit a tipping point as clever chefs started using serving it in fancy-pants restaurants, but Gram's story is set more 1890's than 1990's.)

At any rate, by the time I entered the picture, polenta was no longer something that my family ate several times a week to stretch a wafer-thin food budget and, ironically enough, I viewed polenta as a treat when I could talk one of my great-aunts into making it for me.

My family always served polenta on the extremely stiff side -- so that you could cut it like a pie -- and topped it simply with tomato sauce and cheese. My great-grandfather ate it with a raw, quartered onion, which was how I favored it, too. I recommend trying it that way, but here, I'm serving it with a simple mushroom sauce. Andiamo! Your polenta awaits ...

You will need:
1 cup of milk
1 1/4 cups polenta (approx.)
3 cups water
palmful of grated parmesan cheese
2 cloves of garlic - finely diced
1 shallot - finely diced
about 2 dozen cremini mushrooms
1 handful of fresh parsley
1 generous pat of butter
1/2 cup of dry white wine (you can substitute chicken stock if you don't like to cook with wine, but then, who doesn't like to cook with wine?)
1/4 cup cream or half-n-half

The prep:
A word about polenta. You can use regular old corn meal to make polenta, but it will take about 15 to 25 minutes of constant stirring over low heat. Although I generally avoid instant stuff, one day at Labriola's Italian market, I decided to try the quick cooking polenta mix -- by Colavita. It's much easier and also, just as delicious as the old-fashioned method. If you can lay your hands on it -- do.

Bring the water and milk to a boil. Once boiling, add a pinch of kosher salt and stir in the polenta. Beware, it clumps fast, so you need to pour steadily while also stirring furiously. Stir it for about 3-5 minutes over low heat. As you are stirring, add a palmful of grated parmesan cheese. Once it is both smooth and thick, spread it out (about an 1 1/2 inches thick) it to a deep baking dish to let it set and cool.

Then, dice the shallots and garlic and thinly slice the mushrooms. Toss them all into a hot pan coated with olive oil, add a pinch of freshly ground black pepper, and cook over high heat. Don't worry if they stick a bit here and there. You want to brown them and then deglaze the pan with the wine (or stock). Add a pinch of salt at this point -- you don't want to salt the mushrooms too soon, or it will take forever for them to brown. Reduce the heat and let the wine/mushroom alchemy happen. Add a pat of butter and the splash of dairy and let that gently simmer.

Meanwhile, your polenta should have set. Cut it into squares, or rectangles or triangles (I tend to go isosceles in this prep). Brown your polenta cakes both sides in a pan coated lightly with olive oil. You want them just starting to crisp around the edges.

Toss the chopped parsley into the mushrooms and give it a stir. Serve the polenta cake with a healthy spoonful (or two) of the mushroom sauce and grated parmesan cheese.

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