Many years ago in a traditional but stylish Italian restaurant in Melbourne, an older Italian-born waiter who had worked there for many, many years told us about his obsession with polenta. His favourite combination was to serve it with mushroom ragout.
His polenta was cooked for about three quarters of an hour in lots of water, and stirred constantly to create a creamy porridge effect. His mushroom ragout consisted of one or a few varieties of mushrooms slowly cooked in oil, garlic and herbs. The polenta was spread over a warm plate and the mushrooms spooned into the middle. We can’t recall if he said he added anything to the polenta while cooking or whether he added Parmesan cheese or oil at the end.
Several times we have tried making polenta his way, with some success but it does try one’s patience. A few years ago we had the experience of being in a home with a second place winner of a TV cooking show. She stood at the stove for an hour stirring her polenta! The result was great. But was it worth the time taken and that she was concentrating so hard on the stirring that she could barely make conversation, let alone join us at the table?
Today, whatever polenta we buy – whether traditional or instant – we cook it quickly and easily.
Following are two methods we use for making polenta. Serve it with your favourite mushroom concoction. For this post we used barbecued mushrooms with grilled radicchio: spray or smear the radicchio leaves with oil and then barbecue or grill for a minute or so on each side until they start to wilt.
This makes enough for a meal for two people or as an accompaniment to a meat or other dish. Instead of a meat based or vegetable stock, try one third milk and two thirds water. We tend to use the second method below as it provides the option, while the liquid is still cold, to add some finely chopped mushroom stalks, onion, chives or celery as they will cook through and add interest to the final result.
- 500 ml chicken stock or vegetable stock or use a milk and water mixture
- 100 g (instant) polenta
- 75 g Parmesan cheese or pecorino grated
- 2 tbsps butter
Method one. Bring your stock or liquid to the boil. Gently and slowly pour in the polenta, whisking all the time to avoid lumps. Keep whisking and as it thickens add a few pinches of salt and stir through. Place a lid on the saucepan and turn off the heat. Wait 15 to 20 minutes.
Method two. Add your liquid to a saucepan. Gently and slowly pour in the polenta, whisking all the time. Add salt, and anything else such as finely chopped mushroom stalks. Put on low heat and, whisking or stirring all the time, bring to a slow bubble. Put on a lid, turn the heat to very low or right off, and stir a couple of times. Wait 15 to 20 minutes.
Just before serving the polenta, reheat it gently. Stir through the cheese and butter.
Serve immediately: spread the polenta over a warm plate, garnish with the mushrooms.
Degree of difficulty: 3/5 (moderately difficult). Take care to ensure the polenta is not stodgy or lumpy – practice helps!
(The following photograph shows our polenta cooked using method two, with milk and water and with chopped mushroom stalks included, and with the cheese and butter added. While the photo is not ‘magazine quality’, the polenta tasted wonderful!)