We happened to have a couple of ears of corn sitting in the refrigerator that we didn’t quite know what to do with. Sure, we could have eaten them as corn on the cob, it’s the easiest and quite tasty, but we thought we’d go for something a little different. We started to think about what we could do with the corn, and we noticed a half a box of mushrooms, so we thought that we should use up those, too.
Then it hit us: we also had some coarse ground corn meal sitting in the cupboard. Was it enough, we wondered? Yes, exactly one cup left, which is what we need to make polenta similar to the Grilled Basil Polenta we’ve made before. So, we could add the corn kernels to the polenta, and that would be good, right? What about the mushrooms, though? A mushroom gravy? No, a bit too pedestrian. What if we made a mushroom sauce like that in Pappardelle with Mushrooms? Ah, that’s perfect. Let’s get scratchin’ and bust out that dinner!
We suggest using dried mushrooms, mainly because they have much, much, more flavor than those white mushrooms in a box. Plus, rehydrating them provides the broth that you’ll need for the sauce. As far as corn meal goes, try to find a coarse grind, preferably corn meal that’s been stone ground. It makes for a lighter polenta cake. Butter, of course, is unsalted. You don’t let people sneak into your house to salt your food, so why let them add it at the factory? And, of course, Parmesan cheese does not come in green shaker boxes.
Procedure in detail:
There’s a lot here, but it’s basically three things: make polenta and shape into cakes, make the sauce, and then fry the cakes to complete the dinner. Take them one at a time and it’ll be fine. Let’s start with the polenta cakes.
Mise en place. It’s not really necessary for just the poleta, except for cutting the corn kernels off the cob, but we did everything anyway. It can be frustrating to be working on a recipe and then have to root through the cupboard for some ingredient. So, cut the corn kernels off the cobs, grease or butter six 3-inch tart rings, place them on a baking sheet lined with a silicone baking mat or parchment, and measure out everything else. If you don’t have the tart rings, don’t worry, just grease an 8×8-inch baking pan and use that to shape the polenta.
Make polenta. This is a real arm workout, and we can see why some people are tempted to just buy the chubs of polenta — we did once, it tastes just okay — so get ready. Bring the water to a boil, then, while whisking all the time, pour in the corn meal. Reduce the heat to medium and whisk until it comes back to a boil. Then whisk for another five minutes. Now switch to a wooden spoon and stir until the polenta pulls away from the sides of the pan and the spoon can stand upright, about 45 to 55 minutes.
Add corn, cheese, and butter. Remove the polenta from the heat and stir in the corn kernels, Parmesan cheese, and butter. Keep stirring until all the butter is melted in, then give it a taste. Add salt and pepper as needed.
Make cakes. Divide the polenta among the tart rings, pressing it down to smooth the top. It helps to use a piece of plastic wrap so the polenta doesn’t stick to you. If you’re using a baking pan, do the same thing to make one big polenta cake.
Refrigerate. There, the polenta corn cakes are done. That wasn’t so bad, was it? Okay, yes, the stirring was definitely a workout, but it was good for you; plus, you’re making something pretty tasty.
Now we need to work on the mushroom sauce, so let’s get scratchin’.
Mise en place. Yes, there’s a bit more to do here. First, you need to rehydrate the mushrooms in about a cup of boiling water. Let them steep for about 30 minutes, then drain, reserving about a cup of the liquid. Rinse the mushrooms to remove grit, then slice and chop. Since you’ve been chopping anyway, might as well chop the onion, too. There, not so bad, and everything is good to go.
Fry mushrooms. Heat canola oil over medium-high heat until very hot, but not smoking. Add enough mushrooms to make a single layer on the bottom of the pan. Fry for about 2 to 4 minutes, then stir so the other side can fry for 2 to 4 minutes. Season with salt and pepper, transfer to a bowl, and repeat with remaining mushrooms.
Fry onion. Drop the onion pieces into the pan and let them fry for about 4 to 5 minutes or until they begin to get soft.
Add broth and butter. Pour in the reserved mushroom broth and bring to a boil. Once boiling, reduce heat to a simmer and add butter. Continue to stir and simmer until all the butter is melted and incorporated.
Add mushrooms and season. Return the mushrooms to the pan, stir, then add the vinegar. Taste and add a bit more vinegar or salt and pepper as needed. Reduce heat even lower just to keep the mushrooms warm.
Fry polenta cakes. In a large heavy-bottomed skillet, heat several tablespoons of canola oil over medium heat until hot. Add polenta cakes and fry for 5 to 10 minutes on a side, or until slightly crispy and a few black spots form. Naturally, if you used a baking pan to shape the polenta, cut them into manageable-sized squares before frying.
Serve. Place cakes on a plate and top with mushroom sauce. Garnish with more Parmesan cheese, if desired.
This was a really, really tasty meal. Partly because the polenta was so good, but also because of all the mushroom flavor in the sauce. Using dried mushrooms, especially porcini and shitake, in a sauce is like adding a flavor bomb to it. It will be bursting with all that delicious mushroom flavor. It was tricky to fry up all the polenta cakes in a single skillet, and we thought about firing up the grill but declined — that would have been an even better way to crisp up the polenta. Other than that, we can’t think of a way to improve this meal, so it gets the Holy Grail of five stars.