Want to really tell somebody off?
Call them a polentoni (a big polenta). You read that right–a big polenta.That’s the nasty insult that southern Italians lob at northern Italians, or, at least, they did back in the day.
Why’s that? It seems to have a lot to do with class. Polenta was to poor Italians what potatoes was to the impoverished Irish. Survival.
Don’t let the social dynamics of the Italian regional feud keep you from enjoying polenta, though. Prepared properly, it can be delicious.
Polenta is pretty basic. It is a mixture of cornmeal, water, olive oil, and salt but it cries out for culinary creativity. Add some herbs and cheese and you have a tasty dish indeed. Or, prepare it plain and top it with something saucy and wonderful.
Italians have been eating polenta since the 1400s when corn arrived via the eastern trade routes. Originally called “Turkish grain,” polenta was served throughout the day with or without enhancements like meat or vegetables. The popular dish got a huge boost in popularity after Columbus returned from the New World bearing corn. Like tomatoes, peppers and squash, corn was an important part of what historians call “The Columbian Exchange”–the exchange of foodstuffs (animals and diseases, too) between the old world and the new.
This delicious dish combines polenta (chilled, cut into squares and sauteed in butter until you have a slight crunch on the outside) with a garlicky-tomatoey mushroom ragout and as much cheese as your conscience will allow.
It’s pretty enough (and tasty enough) for guests, but it won’t break your budget. And, if, at the end of the meal, your guests call you a big polenta, it will be the best kind of compliment.
- For The Polenta:
- 1 T. unsalted butter
- 3 C. water
- 1/2 T. olive oil
- 1 C. polenta (yellow cornmeal)
- 1.2 C. freshly-grated Asiago cheese
- 1/4 C. flat-leaf parsley (finely chopped)
- Sea salt and freshly ground black pepper
- 1/2 C. shredded mozzarella cheese
- For the Ragout:
- 2 T. unsalted butter
- 1 T. olive oil
- 1 medium onion (finely chopped)
- 2 large garlic cloves (minced)
- 20 ounces mushrooms (crimini, baby bellas, or a mixture) (thinly sliced)
- 1 t. fresh sage leaves (finely chopped)
- 1 24-oz can diced tomatoes
- 1/2 t. fresh thyme leaves
- 1/2 C. red (or white) wine
- 1 T. sugar
- 1/2 C. heavy cream
- For Garnish:
- Shredded mozzarella
- Shredded Asiago Cheese
- Chopped parsley
- For Polenta:
- Grease an 8 x 8 inch baking dish (with sides) with butter.
- Add water and oil to a large saucepan and heat over high heat until you have a boil. Reduce heat to low and pour in cornmeal while whisking constantly to prevent lumps from forming. Bring the mixture back to a boil and continue cooking for about 5 minutes until the polenta is tender and thick. Be sure to stir your polenta constantly during the five minutes of cooking.
- Remove the pan from the heat and whisk in butter, cheese and parsley. Add salt and pepper to taste and spoon the cooked polenta into your prepared pan, spreading the polenta to even it out in the pan. Chill in the refrigerator until form (at least 20 minutes or overnight).
- To make the ragout:
- Heat a large skillet over medium-high heat and add butter and oil. When the butter is melted and the butter foam subsides, add onion and garlic. Sitr with a wooden spoon until the onion is translucent and the garlic is fragrant. This will take about 6 minutes. Add mushrooms, sage, and thyme leaves. Continue cooking for about 10 minutes until the mushrooms have released their liquid and the liquid has evaporated. Add wine and cook until the wine has evaporated. Add tomatoes and cook, stirring until the ragout thickens. This will take about 10 minutes. Taste and adjust seasoning with salt and pepper and sugar. Stir in heavy cream.
- To assemble final dish:
- Melt unsalted butter in a large saucepan and put rectangular pieces of chilled polenta into the hot pan. Cook on one side for about 5 minutes until polenta begins to brown. Turn polenta over and cook on the other side for about 5 minutes.
- Put polenta slices on oven-proof serving plates, spoon on a generous dollop of the hot mushroom ragout and top with shredded mozzarella and Asiago cheeses. Heat for a few minutes under your broiler (or microwave) and serve garnished with extra cheese and chopped parsley.