Polenta con Funghi

My mom -- the lady behind this spectacular carrot cake, these addictive shortbread cookies, and these magnificent blondies -- has, as perhaps we all do, very clear preferences when it comes to food. She adores lobster, salmon, her own Thanksgiving stuffing, and mashed potatoes, and can never say to no to peppermint stick ice cream or anything made with chocolate (especially this cake I made for her birthday). On the flip-side, she does not like, not even a little bit, mayonnaise, cream sauces, Brussel sprouts, most red meat, or polenta. While I can understand the first few there -- Brussel sprouts are an acquired taste, mayo is admittedly questionable -- this last one is surprising. My mom's grandparents, like polenta, were from the north of Italy, and though she always spoke fondly about the Italian dishes she was raised on, it would seem that polenta was the exception to the rule. When I came across a recipe for it in Bon Appetit magazine during my middle school years of recipe research, my mom wrinkled her nose and told me that no, really, it was not worth making, that polenta was nothing more than mushy cooked cornmeal -- ick! -- adored by her grandparents but despised by her and her siblings when they were younger, the most disappointing thing they could ever be served for dinner. I put polenta aside in favor of another recipe that day -- there's nothing worse than a letdown dinner, after all -- and kept it there, filling my time with focaccia, risotto, gnocchi, and other members of the carbohydrate family. 

Well, I guess one of the things you learn when you grow up is that your parents are only human and aren't always right about absolutely everything, because let me tell you, my mom -- as far as I was concerned -- had completely misjudged poor old polenta. On a trip up to the north of Italy -- near Lake Como -- I found myself at a restaurant with a fixed menu starring polenta -- there was no escaping it. The words "mushy cornmeal!" ringing in my ears, I gave it a try, and...found it was cozy and warming and exactly what I needed on a freezing cold day in December, nothing short of delicious (!!!) I vowed to give it a try myself when I got home. My polenta studies thus commenced (better late than never) and I learned that: it's mild flavor made it the perfect blank canvas for braised beef, sausages, rag├╣ or any other sauce or topping; it could be enhanced with Parmesan or any other kind of cheese; it could be served soft and creamy, or left to cool and harden and be cut into slices or fried; it was a starch that showed you were thinking outside the box instead of reverting to the usual potatoes, rice, or pasta. 

But this recipe! Here we have two super simple ingredients -- basic button mushrooms and humble cornmeal -- that combine their forces to make a superb dish. The polenta is thick, creamy, and cozy, both the perfect complement and accompaniment to the hearty, flavor-crazy sauce -- packed with lots of meaty mushrooms, fresh parsley, salty pancetta, and a little dash of white wine. The two, served together with a little grated cheese over the top, is a match made in heaven. Letdown dinner, indeed.

A couple of notes: If you want to make this vegetarian friendly, you can make this without the pancetta. As you know by now I am not a fan of garlic, hence why I saute the full cloves then remove them at the end of cooking. If however you like garlic, feel free to chop 1 clove very finely and add it to the sauce. The sauce is also excellent served over pasta. You can use any kind of mushroom or a mix of any kind of mushroom you want -- I used plain white button mushrooms which worked great. Finally, this is a dish that should be eaten immediately -- the polenta will become become denser and thicker as it cools, which is not exactly what we are going for here.


Ingredients for the polenta:
5 cups water
1 cup cornmeal
2 tablespoons butter
Salt, to taste
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese

Ingredients for the mushroom sauce:
Olive oil
1 pound (500 grams) mushrooms
4 ounces (112 grams) pancetta
3 cloves garlic, peeled and smashed
1/2 cup (a good handful) chopped parsley
1/2 cup (112 grams) white wine
1 cup (200 grams) crushed tomatoes

Extra Parmesan cheese, for serving

Start with the mushrooms: Cut the stems off the mushrooms and clean them with a damp cloth to remove any bits of dirt. Cut the mushrooms into pieces (depends on the size of the mushrooms, but I kept them bigger) and set aside. In a large pot over medium heat, heat up the olive oil and add the pancetta and garlic (as always, I leave the garlic whole here and remove the cloves later as I do not like a very strong garlic flavor). Once the pancetta is beginning to crisp up, add the mushrooms and saute them until they are browned and the water they have released has cooked down and evaporated.
Add the wine to the mushroom mixture and let it cook down until that has evaporated, too, about 5-7 minutes. Add the crushed tomatoes and season everything to taste with salt and pepper. Put the heat on very low and cook the sauce for about 30 minutes, stirring the mushrooms every now and again to make sure they don't stick to the bottom of the pan. Stir in the parsley.
Add water to a large saucepan and set over high heat. Sprinkle in cornmeal while whisking (water does not have to be boiling).
Bring to a boil, stirring frequently. Let boil, stirring frequently, until polenta thickens enough that it starts to bubble. Lower heat immediately continue to cook, stirring frequently with a spoon and scraping bottom to prevent scorching, until polenta becomes thick and pulls away from side of saucepan. The recipe from Serious Eats says this should take 50 minutes, but I found for me it took much less, about 35 minutes – could be that my low tech stove gets a lot hotter than there stove? In any case, keep an eye on it. When cooked, taste and season with salt.

Stir in butter or olive oil and Parmesan. If polenta forms lumps, beat vigorously with a stiff whisk to remove. If polenta becomes too firm or begins to set, add a small amount of water and beat in with a whisk until liquid is fully incorporated and no lumps remain.
Remove the garlic cloves from the sauce and discard. Distribute the polenta into four bowls and top with the mushroom sauce. Serve immediately with extra Parmesan cheese grated over the top, if you like. Serves 4.


  1. I LOVE polenta, especially with gorgonzola or toma melted through it! My children are like your mother though: they wrinkle their noses up in disgust when we have it. I can't understand why as there's nothing better when it's freezing outside than a plate of polenta and spezzatino! I love the sound of your mushroom ragu. I have to try to make it soon!

  2. Ciao!!! Polenta with gorgonzola sounds amazing! And yes I agree it's perfect comfort food :) Make the ragu' and let me know what you think!!