I decided on a mushroom ragout to serve with my polenta, using 6 kinds of fresh mushrooms, as well as a handful of dried porcini mushrooms to ramp up the flavour. Using dried mushrooms is a great way to boost the richness of the dish but they are also a great ingredient to have in your cupboard for use in stocks and sauces too. They keep pretty much forever in an airtight jar. I used porcini mushrooms in this dish, but I always have dried shitake and forest mushrooms in the pantry as well.
The variety of mushrooms work really well with the creamy golden polenta, both in flavour and texture contrast. As well as tasting fabulous, polenta is also very good for you, being packed with complex carbohydrates (so it has a very low GI) lots of fibre, a great source of vitamin A and C, iron, thiamin and zinc. It is also low in fat. Traditionally it is served with lots of grated parmesan and butter, however I have omitted this in my recipe as I wanted the dish dish to be the healthier version. Feel free to add some butter and grated parmesan though if the mood takes you - it really is delicious. I do find though, that if you are serving it with a very flavoursome accompaniment, then the cheese and butter aren't really necessary.
Polenta is a great alternative to pasta for those people who need to avoid wheat in their diet and is very versatile. See my hints at the bottom of the recipe for ideas about what to do with your leftovers if you have any. It may even be worth making extra so that you can make another dish the next day.
This ragout and polenta is a great vegetarian dish, but you can also serve it as a side dish with roasted red meat, pork, poultry - or game such as rabbit, venison or quail. It looks beautiful served on a large platter, but if you want to go really traditional, serve it poured onto a big chopping board in the middle of the table, for the ultimate rustic effect.
Creamy Mushroom Ragout with Polenta
You will need:
For the polenta - 1 cup polenta (cornmeal),3 cups water or stock,salt, pepper.
For the ragout - around 500g fresh sliced mushrooms - choose as many varieties as you can get your hands on - shitake, swiss brown, pine, field, button, oyster, enoki, porcini. 1/2 cup dried mushrooms (I used porcini) 1 large finely sliced onion, 2 cloves finely chopped garlic, 1 tablespoon olive oil, 2 teaspoons balsamic vinegar, salt, pepper, 1 tablespoon soft cream cheese (I use the low fat Philadelphia brand one in the tub), 1/2 cup stock (vegetable, beef or chicken) 1 tablespoon chopped fresh herbs - I use parsley, chives, thyme.
Method: First, place the dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with boiling water. Allow to soften while you make the polenta.
To cook the polenta, bring the water or stock to the boil in a heavy-based saucepan. Gradually add the polenta in a slow, thin, steady stream, whisking constantly until all the polenta is incorporated into the water. Whisking ensures that the polenta is dispersed through the liquid as quickly as possible and doesn't clump.
Reduce heat to low and simmer, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon for 10 - 15 minutes or until the mixture thickens and the polenta is soft. To test whether the polenta is cooked, spoon a little of the mixture onto a small plate and set aside to cool slightly. Rub a little of the polenta between 2 fingers to see if the grains have softened. If the grains are still firm,cook the polenta for a little longer. Whisk through the butter and parmesan and season with salt and pepper. Adjust seasonings as required. Cover and set aside.
Now to the mushrooms. Drain the dried mushrooms well and chop them finely. Heat a pan and add the olive oil. Add the onions and garlic and cook gently until the onions are transparent and soft. Add the dried and fresh mushrooms (except the enoki mushrooms if you are using them - these cook very fast so don't add them until the last moment) Cook the mushrooms for a minute or so until they start to soften. Add the stock, balsamic and a little salt and pepper. Simmer until the stock starts to reduce - a couple of minutes.
Stir through the cream cheese until it is well incorporated. If the mixture is a bit too thick, add a small amount of water or stock. Add the enoki mushrooms if you are using them and stir through until just softened. Taste the ragout for seasoning and adjust accordingly.
Give the polenta one last whisk to ensure it is smooth and serve with the mushroom ragout. Top with fresh herbs and serve.
Note: If you have leftover polenta, turn it out on a plate and put it in the fridge for the next day. Cut it into slices, pan fry and serve with grilled veges, nepolitana sauce and parmesan - or cut it into batons and fry it in hot oil to make polenta chips. When it is set, it can easily be cut into whatever shape you like. I have used it to make into little bite sized discs as a base for Italian inspired canapes, or little cubes to dip in gorgonzola sauce. Pretty much anything you can think of - it is super versatile.
Serves 2 as a main meal or 4 as a side dish.