One of us thought up the idea for today’s recipe several months ago, and it was percolating away as a real possibility for a nice dinner sometime. The basic idea is to make polenta, use a layer of that as a base, followed up by a layer of beans, and one of cheese. To our minds, it sounded pretty good, plus it might just look nice, too. So, let’s get scratchin’, and make up a few polenta stacks for dinner.Now, as we say above, this recipe doesn’t come from anyplace except our own heads. Or, at least, we like to think so; in reality, the method of cooking the polenta comes from The Heart of the Plate, by Mollie Katzen, which we learned when we made Chard-Wrapped Mushroom Polenta. Similarly, the way we cook Black Beans comes from Greg Atkinson’s At the Kitchen Table, the Art of Cooking at Home. Apparently, all we did was find a novel way of combining the two, along with some cheese. Even so, we think it’s a great idea.
Makes 4 polenta stacks.
Polenta is a coarsely ground corn meal, nothing more. While you can use standard corn meal, it won’t have the same texture; it’ll be a bit smoother. For the cheese, we used Cheddar, but any cheese with flavor will work. The mushrooms were nothing but the simple white mushrooms; however, we did have some mushroomness in our back pockets in the form of porcini mushroom broth that we’d saved from another mushroom dish. Finally, we don’t think we’d make black beans just for this, but when we make beans, we pack up some and place them in the freezer for quick and easy meals. If you get into the habit, you’ll have beans that are far better than canned, for a fraction of the price.
Procedure in detail:
Mise en place. This recipe has a few things you need to prep, mainly the tart rings. So get out a baking sheet, line it with that baking miracle, parchment or a silicone baking mat, and place four tart rings on the sheet. If you don’t have tart rings, you could use tuna cans with the tops and bottoms cut out. Using strips of parchment, line and extend each of the tart rings to a height of about 2 inches, in effect making a collar for each ring. We found it easiest to fold over the long sides of each parchment strip to make it a bit stiffer. Once you have all the rings set up, you might as well prep the ingredients, too.
Preheat oven to 350°F.
Heat broth. It turns out that it’s easiest to cook polenta the same way one cooks risotto, by adding hot liquid to the polenta, instead of adding polenta to hot water. Why? We don’t know, but, having done it both ways, we can say this method is easier and faster. So, in a small saucepan over medium heat, bring the vegetable broth to a simmer, reduce the heat, and keep it simmering until needed.
Cook onion. In a larger saucepan, melt the butter and fry the onion until tender. This will take about 5 minutes, but you can err on the undercooked side, as the onions will continue to cook as you add other ingredients.
Add mushrooms. Toss in the sliced mushroom, stir them around, and fry until cooked through. Then stir in the salt.
Add polenta. Stir the polenta in with the onions and mushrooms. Almost immediately it will absorb most or all of the butter, but keep stirring until it begins to get a bit toasted, about 5 minutes.
Add broth. Add about 1/3 of the broth, continuing to stir, and let the polenta cook until it thickens, about 5 minutes. Then add another 1/3 of the broth and cook until it’s once again thickened. Add the remaining broth and cook until thickened.
Add cheese. Remove the polenta from the heat, and stir in about 1/2 cup of the cheese until completely melted. Taste and adjust salt, if needed.
Build stacks. Divide the polenta among the four tart rings, pressing down the polenta, if necessary, to form an even layer. Add a layer of the beans to each stack. Finish up each stack with the remaining cheese.
Bake. Slide into the oven and bake until the cheese is melted and beginning to brown, and the beans are hot and bubbly.
Serve. Plate by sliding a spatula under the stacks, placing on the plate and removing the tart ring and parchment collar.
For some reason, beans and corn is one of our favorite combinations. Think corn chips with refried beans, or green corn tamales and a side of beans. And now, polenta and beans. We speculate that, as with rice and beans, corn and beans taste so good because your body knows it is super-nutritious, providing all the necessary amino acids. We don’t know if that’s true, but we like the idea of it. And we liked the idea and taste of these polenta stacks. Our only issue was that the polenta was a bit on the soft side, even after baking, so make sure to cook yours until it’s quite stiff and thick. It will make for a better base. The other thing we liked was that these look quite fancy, but are really pretty easy to put together, taking about 30 to 35 minutes from start to when they hit the oven. We think they’d be a good dish when you want to impress. Four stars.