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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{ 14 comments }

rob April 10, 2007 at 4:09 am

Jules, I’m thrilled to see you confronting your dislike of polenta head on. We must, however, be sharing the same headspace of late. While you were posting about polenta and homemade ice cream with pistachio praline today, I was posting about homemade ice cream with, what else, pistachio praline.

Your meal sounds beautiful. Mushrooms and polenta are a perfect match. Did you enjoy polenta this time? I also have to admit to a tinge of jealousy that you’re late enough in the season to enjoy proper fresh figs, which are a longed for treat on a distant horizon for me. Sigh.

Y April 10, 2007 at 11:04 am

I too like polenta but am a bit of a lazy stirrer. And when you -don’t- stir it, it forms this crust on the bottom of the pot that’s tasty but is a pain to clean! .. so I usually stick to other starches :)

jules April 11, 2007 at 7:47 am

rob,
well great minds think alike… loved the polenta this time.
am planning on giving it a go in it’s soft form next.

we do have figs here but are also looking down the barrel of winter so don’t be too jealous…

Y,
I know what you mean about being difficult to clean…that’s the beauty of the baking method…no crusty bottoms and sides..so much easier to clean I promise…you should give it a go some time when you feel like some new starch inspiration

Mallika April 11, 2007 at 5:00 pm

Believe it or not, I’ve never tried polenta. Is it really healthy? Or just plain yummy?

Your photos are, as always, GORGEOUS!

jules April 12, 2007 at 1:49 am

hey mallika
I guess it’s about as healthy as pasta…all depends on what you have with it… I try not to go too heavy handed with the butter and cheese…it can be really delicious…and versatile since you can either serve it grilled and fried with a crispy crust or all oozy like mashed potatoes…good comfort food

actually you’ve given me an idea..mabey it would work as an accompaniment to curry??

bea at La tartine gourmande April 12, 2007 at 12:28 pm

I totally relate. I think that I have also shared my toke on love/hatred of polenta. I also always get confused in the choices to buy, to start from! I should try again! Great recipes here!

Linda, The Village Vegetable April 12, 2007 at 2:48 pm

first of all, i love that you call arugula rocket and i should do the same. we all should. that salad looks absolutely delicious. so fresh. my lord.

and that ice cream combination is complete and utter perfection (as are the majority of your dishes!). thanks for sharing this. i dont know why i have yet to pair ice cream with fig.

Clare April 12, 2007 at 6:48 pm

What a brilliant idea! I like polenta very much, but I hate stirring forever only to get splashed with hot, molten gobs of the stuff. Now I know what to do…thanks :)

Brigitte April 16, 2007 at 7:19 am

I make polenta very seldom, almost none of my family member like it. Anyway I think I’m going to try your recipe. But you Ice cream is a must. I hope it will work with dreis figs as well, I have some very delicious missions figs for example. To get fresh ones is very, very difficult in Singapore.

jules April 16, 2007 at 7:33 am

hey bea,
glad I’m not the only one. I tend to buy and organic Italian one that is labelled instant but haven’t really explored the other options.

linda,
I think the French roquette is the best name…but it’s plain old rocket here in Oz. Icecream and figs in any form are a marriage made in heaven.

thanks Clare. good luck with your future polenta exploits

brigitte,
hope your family like this version of polenta. If you’re going to use dried figs you’ll need more water. I posted a recipe on dried fig icecream recently and just quitely if I had to choose between the fresh and dried would have to go dried.

kathryn April 23, 2007 at 6:59 am

Jules, what an excellent idea – a polenta revolution. I love the stuff, but can never be bothered to cook it – this is a perfect solution. Thanks!

r April 17, 2008 at 3:19 am

the mushrooms and polenta sound great but i have no idea what youre talking about as far as measurements in liters and grams…

dawn May 29, 2008 at 7:20 pm

hi jules, i am definately making this polenta dish tomorrow, i live in italy, i avoid polenta, i either end up with 3rd degree burns up my arms or the instant stuff tastes like sand. i will let you know how i get on, i’ll even do the mushrooms, i don’t care if the children don’t like them, more for me.
ciao
d
xx

dawn June 3, 2008 at 5:20 am

i did it, i did it, i did it. it was fan blooming tastic, cheers ears!!!!!

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