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oh-so-creamy polenta with mushroom ragout

March 5, 2011

I still remember the first time I experienced polenta.  It was during my senior year of college when my favorite professor would have me over on Wednesday nights.  I’d help her daughter with her chemistry homework and Frau Dr. would whip up a healthy, organic, from-scratch vegetarian meal for us to enjoy together afterwards.  I can’t tell you what an incredible respite from Texan dorm food that was for me!  The conversation and homeyness, as well, were a great change of pace and times that I treasure.

Lucky for me, Frau Dr. was a whiz in the kitchen.  It was in her house that I learned tofu could taste like something other than a wet sponge and that vegetables could be simply prepared and still taste great.*   I’m pretty confident that I’d never even heard of polenta before she whipped some up for us one night.  It was delicious and I was immediately sold on the dish.

Fast forward a few months to the summer after graduation and I’m trying to replicate said polenta, hoping I can use lunchtime to introduce my mom to this fabulous new food item.  I grabbed one of those tubes of polenta at the store and who knows what I did with it.  I knew so little about the substance that I might have googled a polenta recipe and tried to cook that tube stuff as if it were cornmeal.  Or maybe tube polenta is just nasty.  Either way, this dish I was so excited about replicating was just fantastically disgusting in my inexperienced hands.

But this time, oh this time I’ve mastered polenta.  Now I’ve got a few years of cooking mistakes behind me and have learned to scope our recipes a little better.  And this one is a win.  So much so that when offered free lunch out a few days ago, I couldn’t bear to part ways with my delicious polenta packed lunch.

And I haven’t even gotten to the mushrooms yet.  I don’t have a story for my first encounter with mushrooms, but I’ve definitely loved them longer than I’ve loved polenta.  And in this ragout they sing out with flavor.  The thyme and mushroom juice bring out such depth in the tomatoes and it all reduces into this powerhouse of a sauce.  And when you throw that on top of the oh-so-creamy polenta?  I think I’ve created a little piece of heaven here.  Frau Dr. would be proud.

Creamy Polenta with Wild Mushroom Ragout
Adapted considerably from Serious Eats

I halved the recipe and cleaned it up quite a bit.  I mixed the text around to more fit how I thought the different steps should be melded so that the polenta and ragout will be done around the same time.  Even halved, I still found that it made 4 hearty servings.  I know the ingredient list looks daunting, but it’s mostly household things and some things like salt, butter and pepper are listed separately for both the ragout and polenta.

Creamy Polenta
3/4 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
2 cups whole milk**
1 cup vegetables/mushroom stock
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1 teaspoon salt
freshly ground pepper, to taste
Dash of ground nutmeg (or mace)
Scant cup stone-ground polenta (coarse cornmeal)
1/4 cup mascarpone cheese (or cream cheese)

Mushroom Ragout
1 tablespoons olive oil
1.5 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/2 cup diced onions
1/2 tablespoon minced garlic
1 pound wild mushrooms, cleaned, stemmed and quartered
2 teaspoons chopped fresh thyme (can substitute fresh oregano for one teaspoon)
A few shakes dried oregano
1 8 oz can tomato sauce
1 cup vegetable/mushroom stock
1/2 teaspoon kosher salt
freshly ground black pepper, to taste
1/2 tablespoon chopped fresh parsley leaves, optional

** I used heavy cream diluted in water, because it was what I had on hand.  I imagine any variety of milk would work.

If using dried mushrooms (a necessary evil sometimes), reconstitute in the vegetable stock you’ll be using for the recipe.  6 hours in vegetable stock in the fridge is standard, and what I did here.

Combine the milk, vegetable stock, butter, salt, pepper and mace in a large pot and bring to a boil.  Whisk in polenta and stir continuously until mixture begins to thicken.  Reduce heat to medium-low and cook, stirring frequently, for 30 minutes.  Add Parmesan and mascarpone and stir to blend.

While polenta cooks, start on the ragout.  Heat olive oil and butter in a large skillet over medium-high heat.  When butter starts to foam, add onions and sauté for about 4-5 minutes.  When onions are translucent, add garlic and cook for an additional 30 seconds.  Add mushrooms and cook, stirring often, for about 10 minutes.

Add thyme, oregano, tomatoes and stock and bring to a boil.  Reduce the heat to a simmer and cook until ragout has thicken, stirring often.  This will take about 20 minutes.  Season with salt and pepper and stir in parsley.

Serve polenta immediately with ragout on top.  Leftover polenta reheats well.  Store and reheat ragout and polenta separately.  Add a little bit of extra milk to polenta before microwaving to regain the creaminess.

* Saying this is not an insult to my own mom’s cooking, since the boys would never even allow Mom to look at a package of tofu or stray from the pre-approved four standard vegetables.

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