Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Almost "No-Stir" Polenta and Mushroom Ragù

With daytime temperatures dipping to below freezing here in the Northeast U.S., it's time for heartier foods. Yea, I know, you're all sated from rich holiday foods, but if there's one thing I can't resist during cold weather, it's a heaping plate of polenta - with cheese, with sausages or in this case, with mushroom ragù. It's featured on many of the menus along the mountain huts in Italy where skiers pop in mid-day for a bit of sustenance for the rest of their run. It was truly needed last week while I was skiing in the Val Gardena, a valley of three villages in the northeastern region called Alto Adige. The snow fell practically non-stop and is continuing this week.

This is what the area looked like last week, when you couldn't even see the mountains in the distance.

Here's the same scene taken during a different ski trip, when the sun revealed the grandiose peaks.

[Jan-Feb 2010 Italy 702[3].jpg]

With such low visibility, the skiing was cautious and the stops were frequent, including one for a plate of this soft polenta topped with cheese and served with mushrooms on the side:

But you don't need to take a trip to the Val Gardena to enjoy this dish. In fact, I made a similar version, but with tomatoes, before I left for Italy, using dried porcini mushrooms and baby portabella mushrooms. If you can't find the porcini, use any combo of mushrooms that suit your fancy.

After the mushrooms simmer in the sauce for a good hour, you end up with a rich and flavorful ragù perfect for slathering over the polenta.

I own a sturdy copper pot with an electric motor that stirs the polenta all by itself - called a "paiolo." Click the button at the lower left to get a demonstration.

 It is pretty nifty but not really necessary to making polenta. Last month I watched a TV segment of "America's Test Kitchen" featuring a way to make polenta without stirring (well, almost, except at the very beginning.) During Christmas week, I served both versions -- from the paiolo and the "no stir" method --  to some Italian friends, and they declared them equally good.

Most people use water in their polenta, but sometimes I add milk, especially if I'm having company. If you want to be really decadent, try using some cream too. In that case, just make sure you take an extra run or two down the mountain.

Mushroom Ragù

printable recipe here

1 oz. dried porcini

8 oz. baby bella mushrooms (or another variety you prefer)

2 T. olive oil

1/2 carrot, minced

1/2 cup chopped onion

1 garlic clove, minced

1/2 of a 28 ounce can crushed tomatoes

1/4 cup red wine

1 T. tomato paste

about 1 cup of the liquid from soaking the porcini mushrooms

1 bay leaf

1 sprig rosemary

Rehydrate the dried porcini in two cups of warm water for about a half hour. Drain and chop the mushrooms, and strain the liquid to filter out any dirt or sand particles. Saute the mushrooms in the olive oil, and add the carrot, onion and garlic until softened. Add the rest of the ingredients and simmer gently for about an hour until thick and rich. If it gets a little too thick, add more of the liquid from the porcini. Serve over steaming polenta.

Almost no-stir Polenta

From America's Test Kitchen

Why this recipe works:

If you don’t stir polenta almost constantly, it forms intractable lumps. We wanted creamy, smooth polenta with rich corn flavor, but we wanted to find a way around the fussy process.

The prospect of stirring continuously for an hour made our arms ache, so we set out to find a way to give the water a head start on penetrating the cornmeal (we prefer the soft texture and nutty flavor of degerminated cornmeal in polenta). Our research led us to consider the similarities between cooking dried beans and dried corn. With beans, water has to penetrate the hard outer skin to gelatinize the starch within. In a corn kernel, the water has to penetrate the endosperm. To soften bean skins and speed up cooking, baking soda is sometimes added to the cooking liquid. Sure enough, a pinch was all it took to cut the cooking time in half without affecting the texture or flavor. Baking soda also helped the granules break down and release their starch in a uniform way, so we could virtually eliminate the stirring if we covered the pot and adjusted the heat to low. Parmesan cheese and butter stirred in at the last minute finishes our polenta, which is satisfying and rich.

Coarse-ground degerminated cornmeal such as yellow grits (with grains the size of couscous) works best in this recipe. Avoid instant and quick-cooking products, as well as whole-grain, stone-ground, and  regular cornmeal. Do not omit the baking soda—it reduces the cooking time and makes for a creamier polenta. The polenta should do little more than release wisps of steam. If it bubbles or sputters even slightly after the first 10 minutes, the heat is too high and you may need a flame tamer, available at most kitchen supply stores. Alternatively, fashion your own from a ring of foil. For a main course, serve the polenta with a topping or with a wedge of rich cheese or a meat sauce. Served plain, the polenta makes a great accompaniment to stews and braises.

7 1/2 cups water 1 1/2 teaspoons table salt pinch baking soda (I like to use a combination of milk and water - proportions are up to you.)

1 1/2 cups coarse-ground cornmeal

2 tablespoons unsalted butter 4 ounces good-quality Parmesan cheese , grated (about 2 cups), plus extra for serving

ground black pepper

1. Bring water to boil in heavy-bottomed 4-quart saucepan over medium-high heat. Stir in salt and baking soda. Slowly pour cornmeal into water in steady stream, while stirring back and forth with wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Bring mixture to boil, stirring constantly, about 1 minute. Reduce heat to lowest possible setting and cover.

2. After 5 minutes, whisk polenta to smooth out any lumps that may have formed, about 15 seconds. (Make sure to scrape down sides and bottom of pan.) Cover and continue to cook, without stirring, until grains of polenta are tender but slightly al dente, about 25 minutes longer. (Polenta should be loose and barely hold its shape but will continue to thicken as it cools.)

3. Remove from heat, stir in butter and Parmesan, and season to taste
with black pepper. Let stand, covered, 5 minutes. Serve, passing
Parmesan separately.

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  1. Comfort food at its best! Simply mouthwatering.



  2. Thanks for the great tip and the ragu sounds amazing.

  3. sending this to my MIL, who is polenta challenged! Looks fantastic.

  4. Now this is comfort food! Bart just goes wild for dishes like this. I've never done it with a mushroom ragu, however - usually beef. I bet this is fab.

    I missed the American's Test Kitchen Polenta recipe - thanks for the heads up.It makes sense. I'll have to give it a try.

    And I have a question - on the shot of this dish as it was served in Italy. Is that a big hunk of cheese just set atop the polenta and left to melt in? It looks so tempting.

    I love seeing the photos of your travels. It really looks like fairy tale land there.

    Welcome home!

  5. Adri - Thanks for the comment. I think the cheese is placed on top and then put in the oven for a minute to melt.

  6. Un piatto confortante e gustoso.. ideale per il freddo e in grado di regalare davvero dei caldi sorrisi! Ti abbraccio e ti faccio i miei complimenti! <3

  7. Realmente exquisito me encanta tiene un aspecto perfecto y delicioso,una gran receta abrazos y abrazos.

  8. Oh my the cheese melted over the polenta, that is what I call comfort! I want to put my jammies and slippers on just looking at that. Your version I will try soon, I'm due for some polenta after seeing this.
    Those beautiful views you see, I love your travel photos!

  9. I don't know what looks better---the gorgeous snowy alps or the yummy polenta. What a perfect recipe for this frigid weather; I'll look forward to making it this week.
    Thank you!

  10. I have never attempted polenta but you make it look so easy with this method. It is the time for comfort foods.

  11. It's dipped to minus 15 degrees F the last few days. Ready to scoop the polenta from the screen! A glimpse of the mountains and then the steaming polenta did my heart so much good. The mushrooms are a nice, earthy change from a meat ragu.

  12. Mamma mia! Even in this summer heat and humidity that is appealing. Oooooo, I can't wait for a bit of cool weather to indulge!I have never had polenta with mushroom ragu, though. This winter it's going to be on the menu!

  13. Adoro la polenta e con questo ragu' è irresistibile, un vero confort food per la stagione fredda. Un abbraccio Daniela.

  14. My husband has the fondest childhood memories of being the one to clean out the polenta pot with his spoon before it was put in the sink to be washed. He loved every drop! I will havw rto surprise him with this recipe very soon!

  15. che voglia di polenta e di montagna, fra qualche giorno parto anche io ! Passa un felice weekend Linda, un bacione

  16. Now wait a minute! Whre did you get that paiolo? I've been looking high and low for one here and have never found one….

  17. Now I see what you were talking about....and the dinner in your last post? Amazing!!