Miriam’s mother likes to call polenta “Italian grits”, and it’s a little bit true – both dishes are a kind of corn porridge. But that description doesn’t really do polenta justice: it’s an Italian dish that’s not as well known as its country’s other grain-based favorites, like pasta and risotto, and when you cook it right it comes out smooth and creamy and really, really delicious. You can buy weird tubes of polenta in the refrigerated section of many grocery stores, but we’ve always had trouble making those come out the way they’re supposed to. Then we found this recipe (from the New York Times), which calls for making polenta from scratch with cornmeal, and that turned out much better than other attempts we’ve made. We’ll show you how we did it.
First, put your dried mushrooms into a bowl and covering them with around 1/2 cup of boiling water. Let them sit for 20 minutes to plump up.
You can start on your polenta now by pouring 4 1/2 cups of water and 1 3/4 cups of milk into a large, deep saucepan and bringing this mixture to a simmer over medium-high heat. Slowly whisk in 1 3/4 cup of cornmeal and let it thicken for a few minutes, continuously whisking it around the pan.
Turn the heat down to low and cook the cornmeal for 40-45 minutes, stirring it at least every 5 minutes so that it doesn’t clump up. You can pour in more water, a half cup at a time, if the mixture gets too thick, but don’t add in more than a cup of water in total.
While the polenta is on the stove, thinly slice your fresh mushrooms. You should also mince a clove of garlic and chop the dried mushrooms once they’re done soaking.
Heat 2 tablespoons of butter in a large sauté pan over high heat and add in your garlic, then all of your mushrooms and a few sprigs of thyme.
Cook everything for 3-4 minutes, until the mushrooms start to brown, then add 1/4 cup of water to the pan and let your veggies simmer until about half of the water has evaporated. Turn the heat down to medium-low and whisk in another 3 tablespoons of butter, a tablespoon of soy sauce, and a tablespoon of olive oil.
Pour in a tablespoon of heavy cream and cook the mushrooms until this mixture has started to thicken, then take it off the heat.
Hopefully you’ve been paying attention to the polenta – once it’s done cooking, add 4 tablespoons of butter and a tablespoon of Parmesan and stir them in.
Your polenta should be smooth and creamy – like this – when it’s done.
Spoon the mushrooms over the polenta and serve with more Parmesan and thyme leaves on top.
This was the best polenta we’ve ever cooked – the milk and butter made it incredibly rich and smooth, and it was great that we could use the cornmeal we already had on hand instead of having to buy an extra ingredient. The mushrooms came out really flavorful cooked in the soy sauce, cream, and more butter, and they added a nice contrast to the creaminess of the polenta. This dish isn’t the simplest thing you’ve ever made, because you do really have to be vigilant in making sure the cornmeal cooks right, but we think it was worth it. We’re really glad we discovered this method of making polenta – no more weird vacuum-sealed tubes for us – and we’ll try it this way in the future as we experiment with other veggies that go well in this unique Italian dish.