Polenta is something I came across only in my late twenties in a Tuscan restaurant in Rome. It came as a hearty mound on a bread board piled high with deep, rich, wild boar (cinghiale) ragù. And that was just for the ‘primo’. Naturally, I rarely made it to a ‘secondo’.
I’ve taken liberties with the word ragù here and gone veggie. Some mushrooms are so flavoursome that they equal meat in this dish and make the whole affair a lot lighter. J won’t touch mushrooms so we never eat them for supper as a family, despite my buying them in the vain hope I can persuade him. The last lot of mushrooms – brown-cap this time – were beginning to linger around with no takers. I’ve tried smuggling them into meals before, but they were sniffed out in a jiffy. They became instead a welcome start-the-week lunch in the garden; our first meal outside since new year. The sun making a surprise appearance out of the misty chill bubbling in from sea.
The polenta took just six minutes. Buy quick mix, always! Hard on the heels of my love affair with the polenta in that Roman restaurant, I bought a packet and took back the the UK. But I’d bought the traditional cooking method type that involved stirring – continuously – for an hour (or more). The cauldron on the hob ended up with a solidified yellow mass encrusting its base. The polenta had become a labour, not a love. I needed two hands gripping the spoon in iron fist to mix the maize. Needless to say, polenta was short-term love affair and one not rekindled until I discovered many years later the quick-cook packets. I doubt you’ll make my mistake though as I expect the trad cooking type is seen only in health food shops rather than on supermarket shelves these days.
With spring now definitely in the air, and a meal al fresco, the polenta and this rich mushroom ragu’ was a compromise lunch, stoking us up but surprisingly less heavy an option than it looks. Polenta is worth remembering not just for its speed, but also for its versatility: use it hot and creamy (like a smooth mashed potato), eat in slices warm or cold, or reheat in the oven or by frying gently in a pan just smeared with a little olive oil.
All images © Liz Ayling 2013
- Amounts serve 8 in good thick slices.
- 250g polenta (quick-cook)
- 500ml water
- three sprigs fresh rosemary, chopped finely
- pinch of salt & twist of fresh-ground black pepper
- Mushroom Ragù
- 3 good handfuls of mushrooms – field, brown-cap or regular white
- 2 knobs of unsalted butter
- 2 tbsp sundried tomatoes, puréed up or finely chopped
- 3 tbsp red wine or Port
- 1 tbsp tomato purée
- fresh thyme sprigs
- Fresh-ground black pepper & sea salt
- Line a shallow flan dish (around 3cm deep and 20cm diameter) or metal baking tray with baking parchment (as in photos). You can cut and lift out slices easily if you line the dish. Check your packet of polenta for instructions, but the volumes in my ingredient list should work for a setting consistency. Adjust with more or less water according to your needs. Bring a large pot of water to the boil. Sprinkle in the polenta along with the chopped rosemary, stirring all the time. My polenta recommended 3 minutes stirring to cook it. When cooked (check it’s not still gritty), remove from heat and pour into the lined dish. Allow to set a little then keep warm, loosely covered with foil (in a very low oven if you wish).
- While the polenta sets, dab clean and slice the mushrooms. In a heavy-based frying pan melt a couple of knobs of butter. Add the mushrooms, tossing to coat. When cooked down a little, add all the other ingredients except the thyme and allow to cook for 5-10 minutes until the mushroom are soft, but not disintegrated and the liquid has reduced to a thick sauce. Remove from heat, toss in the fresh thyme.
- Serve the polenta in slices topped with the mushrooms and grated Parmesan. Garnish with more thyme and/or rosemary. This is an ideal lunch or light supper dish and perfect as a starter, if served in small slices.
- Tip: Make this with half porcini mushroom if you like too (thanks Juniper for the tip!). Just soak the porcini in boiling water for 20 minutes, drain and rinse to remove any gritty bits. Then chop finely and add along with the regular mushrooms early stage in the recipe.