Years ago, I abandoned the traditional stir-until-you-get-a-blister-on-the-inside-of-your-thumb method for making polenta and became a convert to the easy oven-baked version. But then I began working with polenta freshly milled from heirloom varieties of corn, and went back to the top-of-the-stove method because the results were exceptionally creamy and fragrant.
This was at the urging of Kay Rentschler, who is the creative director of the Anson Mills website and writes its recipes. She is very specific about the best way to cook the mill’s products, so I followed her instructions for polenta, which are shared here. The flavor of the corn is heavenly, and once it begins to thicken, you don’t have to stir continuously, so it is not tedious to make.
You could serve polenta as a side, but I like to show it off and serve it as a main dish (a boon for those who now eschew pasta). It’s a wonderful vehicle for any number of toppings, but my favorite is a simple tomato sauce embellished with pan-cooked mushrooms, preferably meaty, flavorful varieties like oysters or maitakes. If you want to be extravagant, throw a few chanterelles into the mix.
Polenta With Wild Mushrooms and Marinara Sauce
1 cup fine yellow or white polenta
ß teaspoon fine sea salt, more to taste
œ teaspoon black pepper, more to taste
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
3 tablespoons freshly grated Parmesan, more to taste and for garnish
2 tablespoons extra-virgin olive oil
1 pound wild mushrooms, like oysters or maitakes, cleaned and torn into small pieces if large
2 shallots, minced
2 garlic cloves, minced
1 teaspoon minced fresh thyme
1 teaspoon minced fresh rosemary or sage
œ cup dry white wine
1 tablespoon minced fresh parsley
1 cup Simple Tomato Sauce
To make the polenta, place it and 3½ cups water in a heavy 2½- or 3-quart saucepan with a lid, and stir to combine. Set over medium-high heat and bring to a simmer, stirring constantly until the fine polenta particles remain suspended and evenly distributed in the water without continuous stirring. This should take 5 to 8 minutes.
Reduce heat to low, cover partly and cook, stirring often, until polenta is soft and holds its shape on a spoon, about 35 minutes. Whisk in salt after 20 minutes. When polenta is done, whisk in pepper, butter and Parmesan.
While polenta is cooking, pan-cook mushrooms. Heat 1 tablespoon olive oil over high heat in a wide, heavy skillet or a wok. Add mushrooms and cook, tossing and stirring often, until they sear and begin to sweat, about 3 minutes.
Reduce heat under mushrooms to medium. Add another tablespoon oil and the shallots and cook, stirring, until just tender, 3 minutes. Add garlic, thyme and rosemary or sage. Season with salt and pepper and continue to cook over medium heat until mushrooms are soft, about 5 more minutes. Add wine and cook, stirring, until it is no longer visible in the pan. Add parsley, taste and adjust seasoning. Remove from heat.
As soon as polenta is soft, spoon into wide bowls or onto plates. Make a depression in the middle with the back of a spoon and add a spoonful of hot tomato sauce. Top with a spoonful of mushrooms, sprinkle with Parmesan if desired, and serve.
Makes 4 servings.