Mushroom and Herb Polenta

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In my vegetarian days, I ate a lot of mushrooms. Big portabella, crimini, shiitake, and oyster. They were hearty, almost meaty some of them, and absorbed so much flavor.

But habits and diets change as you get excited about new ingredients and over others. In the past year or so, mushrooms rarely made it into my shopping cart. I just was never really in the mood for them. Danny kept requesting them.

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And finally, here they are. This recent City Kitchen column got me thinking about them again, and I like David Tanis’s emphasis on the pleasure of meals made with the simple white button mushroom. They’ve been taken for granted, Tanis says, as food lovers praised the more exotic mushroom varieties.

I picked up a bunch of white button mushrooms and fried them up one night in olive oil with a (big) splash of dry sherry and a hit of an intense herb-garlic salt. The mushrooms shrunk, browned, and concentrated with rich flavor, and they were completely delicious on top of brown rice and lentils, shiny from a drizzle of hazelnut oil.

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Our next move was this, a mushroom and herb polenta from Yotam Ottolenghi. He presented it with the polenta spread out on what looks like a pizza peel, which looked beautiful but I wondered if it was the most practical way. We used a pie pan, filling it with cheesy and buttery polenta and a mix of mushrooms. I used 2 cups of white button mushrooms, 1 cup of portabella, and 1 cup of long-stemmed shiitake.

The pie pan worked fine, but I can see why a wider surface would work. The polenta, laced with cheese, will not be too runny for a flat surface and it benefits from more room to lay out everything. We’ll keep it in mind next time.

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We doubled the garlic because we love the stuff but feel free to bring it back down to 2 cloves. Moving the polenta to an ovenproof dish showed off a cheese to polenta ratio that will satisfy most, with long strands of Parmesan pulled out in every scoop. We couldn’t find Taleggio cheese so I subbed in trusty Gruyère, and any melty cheese you have around should do. The recipe calls for 4 ounces of it, but you could certainly halve the amount or drop it to 3 ounces without losing much. This will serve two or three generously as a side, but I can see it served as a hearty dip. Get yourself a sturdy chip, maybe pita, and go at it.

This was richer than we pictured or planned on in the week or so before what I’m sure will be a food-filled trip to Chicago (my first!) but as usual, we regret nothing. This is the first mushroom dish on the site, but it won’t be the last. Mushrooms are back in the mix.

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mushroom and herb polenta

The polenta is made exactly as it should, with plenty of butter and Parmesan cheese, and then the golden brown mushrooms are surrounded in melty cheese, crushed garlic, and lots and lots of herbs. Treat this as a side for dinner or as a hearty dip with a sturdy chip, probably pita. This looked slightly more virtuous in Yotam Ottolenghi’s cookbook but just know that it’s very cheesy. You could reduce the amount of each cheese by an ounce or so if you’d like.

4 tablespoons olive oil
4 cups mixed mushrooms, very large ones halved
4 garlic cloves because we really love this stuff, crushed
1 tablespoon chopped tarragon
1 tablespoon chopped thyme
1 tablespoon truffle oil (optional, we used hazelnut oil because we had it around)
salt
black pepper
2 1/4 cups vegetable stock
1/2 cup polenta (instant or traditional)
3 ounces Parmesan cheese, grated
2 1/2 tablespoons butter
1 teaspoon finely chopped rosemary
1 tablespoon chopped chervil or parsley
3 to 4 ounces Taleggio or other good melty cheese, such as Gruyère, sliced thinly

Heat half the olive oil (2 tablespoons) in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Add half the mushrooms and fry until just cooked, a few minutes. Try not to stir them much so they get golden brown. Remove mushrooms from the pan and set aside on a plate. Fry the rest of the mushrooms in the rest of the olive oil. When the second half of mushrooms are ready, take the skillet off the heat and add the rest of the mushrooms, the garlic, tarragon, thyme, salt, pepper, and truffle oil if using. Cover and keep warm.

Bring the stock to a boil in a medium saucepan. Slowly stir in the polenta and reduce the heat to low. Stir constantly with a wooden spoon, which is easy if this is the quick-cooking polenta. It’s ready when the stock is absorbed and the polenta has thickened but is still a bit runny. Instant polenta will take barely 5 minutes; traditional polenta could take up to 50 minutes (add a little more water or stock if it starts to dry out).

Turn on the broiler. When the polenta reaches the right consistency, stir in the Parmesan cheese, butter, rosemary, and half the chervil. Season with salt and pepper. Spread the polenta over a heatproof dish (we used a pie plate, though something wider would be good, too, and Ottolenghi appears to use a pizza peel) and top with slices of the Taleggio cheese. Place pan under the broiler until the cheese bubbles. Remove the pan and top with the mushrooms, including all the herbs and juices, and return to the broiler to warm it up for a minute. Garnish with the rest of the cervil and serve immediately.

Serves 2 to 3 generously as a side. Adapted from “Plenty” by Yotam Ottolenghi.

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