Some say polenta is the precursor to bread, one of the earliest and simplest forms of food. Ancient grains such as millet and spelt were originally used to make polenta, followed by farro, barley and buckwheat that were used predominantly until the mid 16thcentury when explorers returned with maize from the New World. Modern polenta, which claims its roots in Northern Italy, is made primarily using coarse corn meal and resembles American grits.
The preparation has remained virtually unchanged since early times, essentially mixing coarsely ground grain with water to create a paste that can be eaten warm in liquid form or cold as a solid cake. A staple of peasantry for centuries, polenta was mixed in round bottomed copper pots known as paiolo and stirred with a wooden spoon. Today, polenta has reached gourmet status and can be found on menus in many fine dining establishments around the world.
The key to a good polenta is to let it sit on the stove on very low heat for several hours, stirring frequently to achieve a sweet and luxurious creaminess. Butter is added at the end along with some grated grana Padano or well-aged parmesan. Polenta is incredibly versatile and can be baked, fried, grilled or used warm as a great accompaniment to vegetables, meats and stews.
2 cups heavy cream
2 cups whole milk
1½ tsp salt
⅔ cup coarse ground corn meal
¼ cup extra virgin olive oil
½ cup shallots, thinly sliced (@ 2 medium)
2 cups mixed wild mushrooms, bite size pieces or 3 oz dried reconstituted
½ tsp red pepper flakes
1 tsp herbes de Provence
½ cup chicken, mushroom or veg. stock
1 Tbsp fresh chives, finely chopped
2 Tbsp unsalted butter
½ cup grated good quality grana-padano or parmesan
Directions: (Note allow 3½ hours to achieve the perfect polenta)
In a heavy saucepan, heat cream and milk on medium heat until small bubbles begin to appear on the surface. Add salt and whisk hard until you reach a heavy froth.
Add polenta, increase heat to medium high and whisk constantly for 3 minutes until mixture begins to boil.
Reduce heat to very low (if you have a heat diffuser use it here), cover the pot and cook for 3½ hours stirring with a wooden spoon every five to ten minutes. Mixture should be smooth, thick and creamy at the end.
When polenta is almost done, start the mushroom ragout.
In a large sauté pan, heat olive oil over medium heat.
Add shallots and cook until translucent and begin to brown at the edges (@5mins)
Increase heat to medium high, add mushrooms, red pepper flakes and herbes de Provence and cook until mushrooms have released all of their liquids.
Add stock, bring to a boil then reduce heat and simmer for 7-10 mins. There should still be liquids in the pan. Sprinkle with chives.
Just before serving, add butter and cheese to the polenta stirring until well incorporated. Note: polenta will thicken as it cools. If too thick, thin it with a little milk.
Spoon polenta into bowls and top with the mushroom ragout.