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, ragù 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.
POLENTA AI FUNGHI
Ingredients for the polenta:
4 1/2 cups water
1 1/3 cups cornmeal
3 tablespoons of olive oil
1 1/4 teaspoons salt
4 tablespoons Parmesan cheese
Ingredients for the mushroom sauce:
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.
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.
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.
Meanwhile, in a medium saucepan, bring the water and 1 1/4 teaspoons salt to a boil. Add the cornmeal in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Add the cornmeal in a slow stream, whisking constantly. Whisk in the remaining 3 tablespoons oil. Reduce the heat and simmer, stirring frequently with a wooden spoon, until the polenta is thick, about 20 minutes. Stir in the Parmesan.