Growing up in the rural midwest, food was traditional Americana. Steak, potatoes, gravy, eggs, corn, pot roast, white bread, and green bean casserole made frequent appearances at our family table. There was no ethnic aisle in the grocery store and most recipes were either handed down through the family or shared at church potlucks.
With my sheltered food upbringing, it wasn’t until I was in my late 30s before I had even heard of polenta. But am I ever glad that not only did I hear about it, but I listened to the person who told me about it. Friends, it was love at first bite.
This recipe is something that I have been tweaking over the years. First, determining how much polenta would fit into my casserole dish and then experimenting with different cheeses as each has its own unique texture and flavor profile. Finally, what type of filling and how much to add? Since I love mushrooms, that was an easy decision. The quantity was harder to work out. Initial versions proved that two pounds of mushrooms were simply too much. As the very top layer, a pound was fine, but a pound in the middle resulted in the top and bottom layer of polenta never quite coming together. The top layer always slid off. Oh well… I ate my mistakes.
If you have never tried polenta, this is a great introduction. This Italian staple says ‘comfort food’ in any language.
Baked Mushroom Polenta
- 5 C. water
- 2 1/2 tsp. salt, divided
- 1 1/2 C. course grind polenta
- 1 Tbl. olive oil
- 3/4 tsp. dried sage, powdered
- 1/2 C. parmesan cheese, grated
- 2 Tbl. butter
- 1 lb. cremini mushrooms, sliced
- 1/4 tsp. black pepper
- 6 oz. fontina, grated
- 2 oz. cream cheese
- salt to taste
Heat oven to 350F.
In a stock pot over medium heat, add the water and 1 1/2 tsp. salt. Bring the water to a boil. Pour in the polenta slowly, whisking to prevent clumping. Lower the heat to a simmer. Partially cover the pot with a lid and whisk periodically to prevent polenta from sticking to the bottom of the pot. Simmer for 20 minutes or until the mixture becomes thick and the grains of polenta are soft (no longer firm). Stir in the cream cheese until it is thoroughly incorporated, then remove from heat.
Meanwhile, place a pan over medium heat. Add the olive oil. Once the oil is hot, add mushrooms and butter. Saute for 5 – 7 minutes. Mushrooms will decrease in size as they lose their moisture and begin to turn a golden color. Stir in sage and 1 tsp. salt and pepper.
Butter a 9 x 13 casserole dish. Pour half of the polenta into the casserole dish. Use a spatula to spread it evenly. Next, top with half of the mushroom mixture, followed by half of the fontina and half of the parmesan. Repeat the layers in the same order.
Bake for 20 – 25 minutes or until the cheese is golden brown. Remove from the oven and allow to sit for approximately 10 minutes before serving.
This polenta dish is versatile. Sometimes, I stir in some finely chopped sun-dried tomatoes with dried basil, carmelized onions with thyme, or spinach with cayenne pepper. Experiment and come up with your own flavor combinations.
Friends, embrace polenta and make it a staple in your pantry. It is comfort food in any language.