It’s been a bit on the cold side here in Tucson. Not cold like you’d find up north, but chilly enough that we wanted something nice and hot for dinner. Something like a casserole that bakes in the oven for a while to heat up the kitchen a bit. But, we wanted something new and different. Maybe not completely different, but at least a little different. As a bonus, we also got to try out a new way of making polenta.
We went with baked polenta, as we just love it. It seems like such a simple dish — basically, corn meal boiled in water until thick — that it would be boring or bland, but it’s not. Something almost magical happens while you cook the corn meal; it somehow gains flavor, making it one of the most comforting foods that we know. It does have a reputation for being difficult to cook, but this recipe simplifies the cooking process by using a double boiler for making the polenta, promising no stirring needed! If it works, the double boiler could make scratchin’ polenta commonplace.
While we stuck close to the original recipe by Chester Hastings in The Cheesemonger’s Seasons, we have to admit defeat in acquiring the raw-milk Taleggio here in the United States (it’s illegal).
As we said above, polenta is nothing more than a coarsely-ground corn meal. While you could use ordinary corn meal, we find it’s worth the effort to seek out the polenta style, as it adds texture to your final dish, with some of the larger corn meal grains still having a light crunch. Parmesan cheese doesn’t come in green shaker cans. Instead, it’s a real cheese that comes in chunks cut from a large wheel of cheese, and the difference between the two is amazing. Taleggio cheese is a soft cheese from Italy, similar to Brie, but with a slightly stronger taste. It may be difficult to find in ordinary supermarkets; we had to visit a local cheesemonger to pick up a piece. Failing that, try this dish with Brie, which should be no problem to find. If you can’t get fresh sage, we’d actually suggest omitting it completely; we just don’t think dried sage would be as effective.
Procedure in detail:
Set up double boiler. If you don’t have a double boiler that will hold about 2 quarts, find two saucepans that will nest nicely inside one another. That’s what we had to do, as you’ll see in a bit. Nest them, and put the quart of water in the inside pan, then add water to the bottom pan so it comes up the sides of the pan — you want to know how much water you can have in the bottom without overflowing.
Boil polenta. Bring the quart of water to a boil over high heat, and the water in the bottom to a simmer over medium-low heat. When the quart of water boils, add 1 teaspoon salt and stir to dissolve. Now, start whisking and slowly add the polenta. By adding it slowly, you avoid making lumps. Once added, lower the heat, but keep the mixture at a low boil, and whisk until thickened, 5 minutes.
Cook polenta. Nest the two pans together to form the double boiler, cover the polenta, and let it cook for 30 minutes, then stir, re-cover, and cook another 30 minutes. Watch the water level in the bottom pan so it doesn’t go dry. If you’ve made polenta the traditional way, you probably remember stirring it continuously with a wooden spoon for 60 minutes while it cooked. With the double boiler method, all that stirring is eliminated.
Sear mushrooms. While the polenta is cooking, heat 2 tablespoons of olive oil in a large skillet over medium-high heat. Once hot, add about half the mushrooms and let them sear for about 3 minutes without stirring. After they’re seared on one side, stir to flip and sear for about 2 minutes on the other side. Season with salt and pepper, then remove to a plate or bowl. Repeat with the remaining mushrooms.
Flavor polenta. When the polenta is through cooking, remove it from the heat. Stir in the butter and Parmesan cheese, followed by the mushrooms. Feel free to taste and add salt and pepper as needed.
Chill polenta. Spread the polenta mixture onto a rimmed baking sheet so that it’s about 1/2 inch thick. We used a pan that’s 15×10, but the exact size isn’t really important. Cover with plastic wrap and chill in the refrigerator until firm, at least an hour.
Preheat oven to 450°F. Lightly butter a 9×13 inch baking pan.
Assemble. Slice the polenta into 12 squares, then slice each square into 2 triangles. Transfer the triangles to the buttered baking pan, overlapping the polenta as needed and fitting them snugly together. Once the polenta is in place, tear the Taleggio into bite-sized pieces and scatter over the top, followed by pieces of sage leaves. Sprinkle grated Parmesan over the top and drizzle with the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil.
Bake. Slide into the oven, uncovered, and bake until bubbling and the cheese is melted and golden brown, about 35 to 40 minutes. Serve immediately.
We really loved the flavor of the Taleggio over the polenta, although we expected the polenta to be a bit firmer when it was baked. Instead, it was somewhat soft and didn’t hold its shape when served. We think that the double boiler cooked the polenta, but didn’t dry it enough to make a firm polenta; next time, we’ll try making it uncovered and stir every 5 to 10 minutes as a compromise. The mushrooms were nice, and there were lots of them, but we think it might be even better with a mix of mushrooms — some porcini would be especially good. Overall, because of the complexity of the meal, and the several ways that we think it could be better, we’ll say 4 stars is an appropriate rating on the “worth it scale.”