By Freya Bellin
Polenta can be really fun to work with because of its versatility. You could serve it as a grain with stir-fried vegetables, under an egg, or even as a savory breakfast cereal (think grits). Or, as in the recipe below, there’s also the option to cool it and pan fry or bake it to get more of a solid “cake”. For this recipe, make sure in step 1 to cook down all of the liquid. By the time the polenta comes out of the pot, it should be very thick like a dough and almost resist being spread into a pan. If it’s at all runny, it won’t cool and set properly.
Polenta and mushrooms make a great pair in this dish, both in terms of flavor and texture. Mushrooms get a little chewy when cooked, which is great against the crispy polenta cakes. This mushroom recipe in particular is a great one to have in your back pocket— it’s fast and flavorful and could be served as a vegetable side dish or even inside an omelet with goat cheese. The thyme, garlic, and wine all work beautifully together to make an earthy, very garlicky dish. While this dish involves some forethought because of the cooling process, it requires little active time and comes together easily. If you end up with scraps from cutting up the cooled polenta, you can bake those up too and eat them like fries with ketchup or BBQ sauce. Recipe from The Food Matters Cookbook.
Polenta Cakes with Garlicky Mushrooms
Makes: 4 to 8 servings
Time: 3 hours, mostly unattended
I like a mix of different mushrooms here—shiitake, chanterelle, oyster, and cremini combine beautifully—but everyday button mushrooms are fine, especially if you combine them with a few reconstituted dried porcini. In any case, the mushrooms are so rich and meaty that even the staunchest carnivore will love these crisp little cakes. Try other toppings too or any salsa.
1 cup coarse cornmeal
1⁄2 cup milk, preferably whole (or use water)
2 tablespoons olive oil, plus more as needed
1 pound mushrooms, preferably an assortment (see the headnote), sliced
1 tablespoon chopped fresh thyme
1⁄4 cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon minced garlic, or more to taste
1. Put the cornmeal and a large pinch of salt in a medium saucepan; slowly whisk in 21⁄2 cups water and the milk to make a lump-free slurry. Set the pot over medium-high heat and bring almost to a boil. Reduce the heat to low and bubble gently, whisking frequently, until thick, 10 to 15 minutes. If the mixture becomes too thick, whisk in a bit more water; you want the consistency to be like thick oatmeal. Taste for seasoning and add salt if necessary and plenty of black pepper.
2. Grease a large baking sheet with some of the oil. While the polenta is still hot, pour it onto the sheet and use a spatula to spread it out evenly at least 1⁄2 inch thick. Brush the top lightly with oil, cover with plastic wrap, and refrigerate the polenta until it sets up, about 2 hours (or up to a day).
3. Heat the oven to 375°F. Grease a clean large baking sheet with some of the oil. When the polenta is set, cut it into at least 12 squares or diamonds or use a round cookie cutter to make disks. Put the cakes on the baking sheet, brush with a bit more oil, and bake until they’re warmed through and the edges begin to brown (the outside should be nice and toasted while the inside should stay soft), 20 to 30 minutes.
4. Meanwhile, put the 2 tablespoons oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. When it’s hot, add the mushrooms and thyme and sprinkle with salt and pepper. Cook, stirring occasionally, until the mushrooms are tender and dried out a bit, about 10 minutes. Add the wine and let it bubble away for a couple of minutes; turn the heat to medium-low and add the garlic. Continue cooking until most of the wine has cooked off. Taste and adjust the seasonings. Serve a spoonful of mushrooms on top of each polenta cake.