This past week, it was frigid in the Northeast. Just when we think Spring is around the corner we get blasted with cold weather. I wanted to prepare a comfort food but not another stew or casserole. I found Sam Sifton’s Polenta with Mushrooms and Soy (New York Times Sunday Magazine March 2, 2014.) The mushrooms are prepared with soy sauce and butter, creating what Mr. Sifton calls umami – a fifth taste beyond bitter, sour, salty and sweet. I am beyond tired of this word. Nowadays, every chef, cooking show and food critic uses umami (correctly or incorrectly) to describe a flavorful dish. Regardless, I do agree that the combination of soy sauce and butter makes this dish extraordinary and possibly deserving of that word.
In the past, I’ve made polenta with mediocre results. I become impatient and pull the polenta off the stove after only 20 minutes when it really should cook for 45 minutes to achieve a creamy texture. Also adding to my lackluster results is that my polenta lacks flavor. Why is polenta at a restaurant so delicious? Because restaurant chefs use double or triple the amount of salt, butter, cream and parmesan to make it decadently rich, creamy and smooth. I have been reluctant to do the same.
I decided to take my time with Polenta with Mushrooms. I nursed the polenta as it cooked on the stove for 45 minutes. I didn’t add parmesan but instead seasoned liberally with butter and salt – something I was afraid to do in the past. I followed Mr. Sifton’s lead and used a mix of fresh baby bella, shiitake, oyster and re-hydrated shiitake mushrooms. I deviated, however, by pan-searing the mushrooms to bring out more flavor and texture. I also used significantly less butter, but the garlic, thyme, soy sauce and cream made up for it. The flavors were subtle but worked together to create a beautifully flavorful dish. I have no doubt that the extra butter would have taken this dish to another level but my version of Polenta with Mushrooms may be equally delicious and time-worthy.
Polenta with Mushrooms. Adapted from Sam Sifton’s adaptation of Polenta with Mushrooms and Soy by Chris Jaeckle, chef at All’onda. (The recipe appeared in New York Times Sunday Magazine on March 2, 2014. Click here for the article and recipe.)
This is an amazing polenta dish. Don’t be turned off by the rich ingredients as they only help to enhance the flavor of the mushrooms. This is hearty but not heavy or greasy. Time Saving Tip: Prepare the mushrooms 20 minutes into the polenta cooking time.
Serves 4 people (as a main course); Prep time – 20 minutes; Cook time – 1 hour
For the Polenta:
- 1 cup whole milk
- 2 ½ cups water
- 1 cup polenta or cornmeal
- Additional water, as needed
- 2 to 3 tablespoons butter, more or less based on your tastes
- Kosher salt to taste
For the Mushrooms:
- ½ ounce dried porcini mushrooms (optional, but highly recommended)
- 1 cup boiling water
- 2 to 3 teaspoons olive oil
- 8 ounces fresh mushrooms, wild or cultivated, sliced (button mushrooms also work)
- 1 garlic clove, minced
- 1 tablespoon fresh thyme
- 2 to 3 tablespoons butter
- 1 tablespoon low-sodium soy sauce
- 1 tablespoon heavy cream or half and half
- 2 teaspoons olive oil
- Freshly ground pepper to taste
To Prepare the Polenta:
- In a medium to large pot or Dutch oven, bring the milk and water to a high simmer. Slowly pour in polenta, stirring with a whisk to prevent clumping. Continue to whisk until the mixture thickens, about 3 to 5 minutes.
- Turn the heat to low and continue to cook the polenta for 45 minutes, stirring every 5 to 10 minutes. If the polenta becomes too thick add 1/4 cup water at a time to thin it out. Add as much water as needed (I ended adding 1 cup.)
- Add butter and kosher salt to taste. Keep warm until ready to plate. (I transferred the polenta to the top portion of a double boiler (covered) and placed it over a simmering pot of water.)
To Prepare the Mushrooms:
- Place dried mushrooms (if using) in a small bowl and add 1 cup of boiling water. Set aside and allow to steep for 20 minutes. Remove mushrooms from the water, pat dry and chop roughly. Reserve the mushroom stock.
- Add 2 to 3 teaspoons olive oil to a sauté pan set over high heat. Add mushrooms (fresh and re-hydrated, if using) and arrange into a single layer, if possible. Allow mushrooms to sear for about 2 to 3 minutes, until they are slightly golden and then flip mushrooms (with a spatula) to brown the other side.
- Lower the heat to medium. Add garlic and thyme and sauté for 2 to 3 minutes.
- Add about 1/3 cup (or all) of reserved mushroom stock (if using) and allow to reduce slightly, about 1 minute.
- Add butter and gently combine with mushroom mixture, followed by soy sauce, cream and olive oil. Allow to cook for one minute. Season with black pepper and set aside.
To Plate the Dish: