Monday, February 24, 2014

soft polenta with mushrooms and arugula.

Despite this being the winter of the polar vortex and 40 inches of snow there wasn't a whole lot of stick-to-your-ribs comfort food cooking happening in my kitchen this year.  There were soups.  Lots of soups.  Lots of squash based soups (I sense a theme).  But I found myself shying away this season from the stews and baked pasta dishes I would normally embrace.  I'm currently scratching my head as to why this was the case (especially since cheesy baked pastas are the love of my life), so let's try and rectify this situation shall we?  

Polenta with mushrooms is the definition of stick-to-your-ribs winter eating but it doesn't require the level of time and effort most winter dishes seem to call for.  I find the transformation of cornmeal into polenta a rather magical process.  Taking the simplest of ingredients (water, cornmeal, salt) and turning into a luxurious meal is incredibly satisfying and it makes you feel so fancy and adult-like (even if you are eating dinner on your living room floor). Here soft polenta creates the perfect bed for a tangled mess of meaty mushrooms and spicy arugula garnished with just enough parmesan that you feel indulgent.  

Soft Polenta with Mushrooms and Arugula

Serves 2

This is winter eating at is finest.  It somehow manages to be both hearty and comforting without being overly heavy.  No cream, minimal cheese, it's "light" winter eating though I could think of a million ways to up the indulgence factor but really that's not necessary (sometimes restraint is a good thing).  

Soft Polenta
Recipe from Lidia's Family Table by Lidia Bastianich

2 1/2 cups water
1 bay leaf
1 teaspoon salt 
1 tablespoon extra virgin olive oil 
1/2 cup coarse yellow cornmeal (polenta)
1/4 - 1/3 cup Pecorino or Parmesan cheese 

In a heavy bottom medium-sized pot add the water, salt, oil, and bay leaf.  Whisking vigorously with one hand, pour the polenta into the water in a thin steady stream (a spouted measuring cup is helpful here). Keep whisking until all the cornmeal is incorporated and the mixture is smooth. Turn on medium-low heat and gradually bring the polenta to a boil. This will take about 8 minutes. You can leave the pot for a couple of minutes but stir frequently and thoroughly, especially the bottom, sides, and corners. As soon as you feel thickening, use a sturdy wooden spoon in place of the whisk, so you can scrap the polenta from the corners and mix it in. 

The polenta will become very thick as it gets close to the boil, then big bubbles will rise and burst in (and out of) the pot. At this point, lower the heat to get a continuous but slow perking - just a couple of bubbles at a time. Set a cover on top ajar so polenta doesn't pop all over the stove.
Cook the polenta at this rate for another 20 - 25 minutes, frequently stirring, and adjusting heat as necessary. Stir more continuously near the end, scraping up the thickest polenta from the bottom and corners. 

When the polenta is glossy and just pulling away from the sides it is done and you may turn off the heat.  Stir in the Parmesan.  Divide the polenta between the two plates.  Top with half the mushroom mixture (recipe below).

Mushrooms With Arugula

1/2 pound of mushrooms, cleaned and sliced
1 tablespoon butter
1 teaspoon tomato paste
1 teaspoon sherry vinegar (optional)
Salt and pepper to taste
1 cup arugula
Additional Parmesan/Pecorino for garnish

In a large skillet, heat the butter over medium-high heat.  Add the the mushrooms to the pan and stir to coat in the butter.  As they cook, the mushrooms will begin to brown and then they will release their own juices, about 3-5 minutes.  Add the tomato paste and sherry vinegar (if using).  Stir to combine. Continue to cook for another minute or two.  Add in the arugula and salt and pepper to taste.  Remove from heat.  

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