Cornmeal is a staple foodstuff in the cuisines of many cultures throughout the world, cooked in nearly similar ways. It can be found in South America, Africa, Eastern Europe, and the South where it is known as grits. Cornmeal is made from the grinding of dried corn kernels that have had the husk and germ removed, which gives it greater shelf life. Polenta, as cornmeal is known in Italy, came to popularity in Roman times when it was eaten as a basic porridge. Its origins as a peasant dish have now been displaced by its availability in high-end restaurants. It is very versatile and can be served alongside a variety of other foods, such as meats, stews, sauces, and fish.
With a nod toward tradition, in this recipe I serve the polenta with a mushroom ragù, a combination of two different varieties of mushrooms, oyster and cremini, sautéed and then simmered with mushroom broth from dried porcinis. But any available mushrooms can be used for this recipe. The polenta is boiled in either water or milk or a combination of the two for about 30 minutes. Instant versions are available, but they do not approach the taste of regular at all. Mushrooms with their earthy taste and meaty texture easily take the place of meat, making this dish ideal for a vegetarian weeknight dinner or a primi course at an Italian-theme dinner party.
4 cups water
1 teaspoon salt
1 cup polenta or yellow cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
1/4 cup grated Parmesan
shredded Parmesan, for garnish
Bring water to a boil in a large saucepan. Stir in salt. Gradually whisk in polenta. Lower heat to a simmer, and cook, stirring every minute or so, for 25 to 30 minutes. Stir in butter and grated Parmesan. Garnish with shredded Parmesan. Yield: 4 servings.
1 1-ounce package dried porcini mushrooms
2 tablespoons olive oil
2 large shallots, finely chopped
2 garlic cloves, finely chopped
8 ounces oyster mushrooms, cleaned and stemmed
8 ounces cremini mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed, and sliced
fine sea salt
freshly ground black pepper
1/2 cup finely chopped parsley
Add dried mushrooms to a bowl and cover with 2 cups of boiling water. Soak, submerged with a small plate, for 20 minutes. Squeeze liquid from mushrooms and slice. Reserve liquid and strain.
Warm oil in a skillet set over medium-high heat. Add shallots and garlic; sauté until fragrant and translucent, about 2 minutes. Add mushrooms and cook until their liquid releases and evaporates, about 8 minutes. Add reserved mushroom liquid and reconstituted porcini; bring to a simmer. Cook on medium-low heat until mushrooms are tender, about 10 minutes. Season with salt and pepper. Stir in chopped parsley and serve over polenta. Yield: 4 servings.