perfecting polenta

polenta tarts with roast mixed mushrooms

Kitchen phobias can be pretty funny things. While some, like artichokes stem from seemingly complicated instructions and fear of failure, others are founded on  much more potentially treacherous risks. Deep frying is one such thing that I tend to shy away from, particularly for dessert after a well wine-ed meal. But it might surprise you, dear reader, to learn that until recently, polenta was high up on my list of things to avoid.

I guess to some it might seem silly to get nervous at the thought of cooking something as rustic and earthy as ground corn. But believe me, once you’ve been spat at by an angry polenta pot, you learn to have a healthy regard for this humble dish.

In the past my solution was to use instant polenta and cook only until it was satisfyingly thickened, avoiding the need to stand stirring over a yellow volcanic danger. But this tended to yield a grainy, raw tasting mush that lacked the creamy goodness that I was seeking.

The use of chicken stock in place of the water did help to overcome the raw flavour issue. But unfortunately it also overpowered any golden corny notes which defeated the purpose, really, of serving polenta as an accompaniment to a meaty stew.

Then a few weeks ago I was reading an interesting article by Rob over at Hungry in Hogtown where he was chronicling his own journey to overcome his dislike of polenta. The secret it seemed was to make sure the polenta was cooked for a sufficiently long time.

The notion of stirring for the requisite two hours or so was terrifying, to say the least. But then the thought struck me. Why not just get it simmering away on the stove top and then safely cover and pop it in the oven like a good slow cooked stew? Delicious and safe… another phobia conquered.

an autumnal supper
polenta tarts with roast mixed mushrooms
rocket & radicchio salad
fresh fig icecream with pistachio praline

polenta tarts with roast mixed mushrooms
serves 6

As I’ve mentioned before, mushrooms and polenta make great mates. I used to always go for oozy soft polenta rather than the set and fried version but there is something to be said for a bit of crispy crust to contrast the softness of the mushies.

Feel free to mix up the type of mushrooms you use, particularly if you have access to some fresh porcini or ceps or something more exotic.

The milk could easily be substituted with water if you wanted a dairy free option but you’d be missing out on the slightly sweet creamy notes that the milk lends to the mix.

200g (7oz) instant polenta
1L (4C) milk
250mL (1C) water
2 bay leaves
75g (2 1/2oz) unsalted butter
20g (1oz) dried porcini mushrooms
100g (3 1/2oz) shitake mushrooms
500g (1lb) portabello mushrooms, sliced
500g (1lb) field mushrooms, sliced
3 cloves garlic, finely sliced
4 sprigs thyme
200g (7oz) unsalted butter chopped, extra
olive oil
parmesan cheese, to serve

For the polenta, preheat oven to 200C (400F). Bring milk, water and bay leaves and some salt to the boil in an ovenproof saucepan or casserole dish. Gradually rain in the polenta whisking constantly. Allow to simmer stirring for a few minutes then cover with foil or a tight fitting lid and transfer to the oven. Bake for 1-2 hours or until polenta is oozy and no individual grains remain. Stir through the 75g (2 1/2 oz) butter and either divide polenta between 6 greased individual pie tins or a large square cake tin. Allow to cool and set.

Soak dried mushrooms in 1/4C hot water. Combine fresh mushrooms in a large baking dish with garlic and thyme and top with extra butter. Bake, stirring occasionally, for 50mins to 1hr or until mushies are cooked though. Adding the dried chopped mushrooms and their soaking liquid about half way through. If there is any liquid remaining when the mushrooms are cooked, transfer it to a small saucepan and simmer until reduced and syrupy then recombine with the mushrooms and season.

Preheat grill to very hot. Brush the tops of the polenta ‘tarts’ with oil and grill until browned and crispy. Turn out and brush tart bottoms with oil and grill until also crispy. If using the large square, divide into 6 smaller pieces before oiling and grilling.

Divide polenta between 6 plates and top with mushrooms and either shaved or grated parmesan and serve immediately.

rocket & radicchio salad
serves 6
Inspired by Jamie Oliver in Jamie’s Italy.

This was one of my favourite salad discoveries that I spoke about last year. Both radicchio and rocket are on the bitter end of the salad spectrum and make a good counterpoint to the richness of the polenta and mushrooms.

1 large head radicchio
3 large handfuls wild rocket (arugula)
1 clove garlic, squashed
2T balsamic vinegar
4T extra virgin olive oil
1 sprig rosemary, leaves picked

For the dressing combine garlic, vinegar, oil and rosemary leaves in a large bowl and season well. Allow to stand for a few minutes for the garlic to infuse.

Remove the large greenish outer leaves of the radicchio. Separate the red inner leaves and wash and spin dry. Finely shred leaves. Wash and dry rocket.

When ready to serve, remove and discard garlic clove from the dressing. Whisk to re-emulsify the dressing then toss through the leaves.

fresh fig icecream with pistachio praline
serves 6

After experiencing the goodness of my dried fig icecream I thought I’d have a go with some fresh figs while they are in season. The colour isn’t the pretty figgy pink I was hoping for but the flavour more than makes up for the lack of good looks.

for the praline:
165g (6oz) caster sugar
1/4 cup water
100g (3 1/2oz) shelled pistachios, toasted & coarsely chopped
for the icecream:
250g (9oz) black figs, approx 6, halved
1 vanilla bean, halved lengthwise
200g (7oz) sugar
3/4C water
4 egg yolks
2 eggs
2 1/2C pouring cream

For the praline: Place pistachios on a baking paper lined tray in a single layer. Combine water and sugar in a small saucepan and stir over a medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer without stirring until the sugar turns a golden caramel colour. Pour syrup over the nuts to cover and allow to cool. Smash into small pieces and store in an airtight container.

For the icecream: Combine figs, vanilla, sugar and water in a small saucepan and stir over a medium heat until sugar is dissolved. Bring to the boil and simmer 5 mins. Place yolks and eggs in an electric mixer and beat until pale and fluffy. Drain approx 2/3 of the hot sugar syrup from the figs and gradually add to the eggs while continuing to mix. Beat until cooled.

Remove and discard vanilla bean from the figs and remaining syrup and puree figs and syrup in a food processor until smooth. Combine fig puree with eggs mixture and stir through cream. Refrigerate until well chilled then freeze in an icecream machine according to the manufacturer’s directions.

To serve place scoops of icecream in pretty glasses or bowls and top with a sprinkling of praline.

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