Polenta: A taste back in time…

Uncooked Polenta, a.k.a. cornmeal

Uncooked Polenta, a.k.a. cornmeal

This evening, I wanted to try something a little different as a mid-week dinner. I was playing with the idea of some kind of rice/quinoa/bulgar wheat dish, all mixed up with some stir-fried veggies, as I wanted something warming but also relatively quick. But could I decide? No. Did I want crunchy or smooth? Herby or spicy? I have no idea why, but I just couldn’t make my mind up! Maybe I was in one of those moods where your body just doesn’t know what it wants. Of course by this point it was starting to get so late that I literally just had to throw something together. Anyway, I’m glad I couldn’t decide as I then remembered a particular ingredient I had brought a few weeks ago, and subsequently never used for one reason or another: Polenta.

Wow oh wow! At the first mouthful of this fluffy, creamy, and yet surprisingly light textured concoction, I was transported back to my early mornings spent working on a stud farm in North America, where I used to feast on a breakfast of grits and honey, along with a hearty side dish of fried eggs and toast (yes it does seem like a lot, but in my defence I was doing a very laborious job for a 19 year old, and when your working in -17°F you need a big breakfast to keep warm!). From the moment that polenta touched my lips, I honestly felt like I was back on the farm, as the taste and texture was just as I remembered it. Had I closed my eyes (I didn’t as I was still cooking!) I could have pictured the scene in front of me that I had long left behind: rolling hills glistening in the snow, smoky white mountains towering overhead, and a barn full of horses eyeing me up eagerly while awaiting their morning feed. Oh what a life it was…

A chilling morning at the American stud farm – looking forward to my grits!

While I was in America, grits were my absolute favourite thing to eat every morning and I had never had anything like them before. I had never even heard of them, let alone cooked them. But what a treat they were! So hot and creamy, with a texture I can only describe as whipped, smooth porridge. I actually don’t like smooth porridge, I prefer it to be chunky, but for these grits I made an exception! Anyway, they were something I have missed eating ever since coming back to England, as I was never able to find them in the stores here. But joy of joys my woes are gone! For I have now opened my pantry door to the world of Polenta, and can’t wait to get cooking with this miraculous ingredient again.

For those of you who don’t know about polenta, it is a type of cornmeal made from stone-ground dried corn, or maize if you live in the US, which you boil into a thick porridge and can eat as it is or continue to cook it in a variety of ways afterwards. You can bake it, fry it, grill it, practically do whatever you want with it as it is so versatile and easy to make. Not only that, but it’s also really healthy and will keep you full for hours – excellent in these cold winter months when we want something to stick to our ribs and keep us cosy and warm.

Going back to my obsession with grits, I thought it best if I give a brief explanation on what these actually are. Although most people think polenta is the same as grits, it actually isn’t. Grits are made from a different type of corn to polenta, and are much lighter in colour and have a firmer texture because of this. Dent corn is typically used to make polenta whereas grits are made from flint corn, meaning the two products do end up being slightly different. This article from Megan Gordon sums them up quite nicely. However, I don’t want to be fussy and ruin what for me was a culinary revelation, so I’m going to go with the idea that although they are technically not the same, polenta is just as good as those American grits I used to salivate over every morning…

So what did I actually end up making for my throw-together dinner this evening?

Sautéed Polenta Mushrooms with Garlic and Thyme. 

Sautéed Polenta Mushrooms with Garlic and Thyme

This dish really was a ‘work with what you got’ kind of meal, the best kind of meal in my opinion, and I have to say it was absolutely divine. Light and creamy with a mixture of textures, and the colour of golden sand. What more could I have asked for?

First I cut up a garlic clove and lightly fried it in a frying pan with a little coconut oil. I love coconut oil, it has such a wonderful delicate flavour and you never end up with that horrid oily coating you can sometimes get. I get mine from Biona Organic which you should be able to get in your local supermarket or health shop.

Next, I cut some mushrooms into bite-size pieces and added these to the pan with the garlic. They only took a few minutes to brown, so I started on my polenta while these were sautéing.

Following the instructions on the side of my polenta packet, I put a pan of water on to boil and then gradually added my polenta, stirring all the time. It did warn me about having to whisk it constantly and that it would only take about 1 minute to cook, but my gosh I didn’t expect it to be that fast! Literally one minute later my polenta was a thick, golden bowl of loveliness, simmering away beautifully and taking me back to my American breakfasts… I actually ended up whisking in about double the amount of water needed, as it cooked so quickly that I almost overcooked it while turning my mushrooms in the pan!

Once the polenta was rescued, I set it aside and set to work on seasoning my mushrooms. I added a generous sprinkle of thyme, some sea salt and freshly ground black pepper, then mixed it all up so the mushrooms were well coated and yummy looking. I was going to serve this on top of the polenta, like a stack, but my curiosity got the better of me (as it does on many, many occasions). So I opted to add the cooked polenta to the frying pan to see what would happen…

Sautéed Polenta Mushrooms with Garlic and Thyme: cooking in the pan

What I ended up with was an irresistible plate of omelette-esque golden polenta, with chunks of herb-crusted mushrooms peeping through at me. Wow it was gooood! It might not look like much, and had I had a bit more time and some extra mushrooms to hand I would have sautéed them too and dressed my plate a bit more. Maybe even added a couple of sprigs of thyme on top for decoration… But seeing as I was only cooking for myself this evening, and was by now really rather hungry, I wasn’t too fussed on how my dinner looked, just as long as it tasted half decent.

And I tell you now, you have to try this recipe. It is so unbelievably quick (I had it on the table in less than 8 minutes – yes, I was keeping score!) and cooking polenta is seriously easy, there really is no excuse not to try this at least once. Plus it is super healthy and really fills you up; ideal in these winter months if, like me, you are prone to snacking on anything left lying around in the evenings. Opps there went another handful of mixed nuts and raisins…

Sautéed Polenta Mushrooms with Garlic and Thyme

Ingredients

x1 Garlic clove, finely chopped

x1 tsp. Coconut Oil

2 large Mushrooms, stalks removed and diced

50g Polenta, uncooked

200ml Boiling water, plus extra to taste

1-2 Tbsp. Dried Thyme

Sea Salt and Black Pepper

Directions

1) Heat the coconut oil in a frying pan and add the chopped garlic. Cook until just brown and sizzling, then add the sliced mushrooms. Sauté for about 4 minutes, until just cooked and tender.

2) Place 200ml of boiling water into a saucepan and slowly add the polenta, whisking constantly until thick. Reduce to a simmer and cook for a further 1 minute, stirring all the time and adding more water to thin it down if desired. Remove from the heat and set aside.

3) Add the thyme to the pan with the mushrooms in, and add sea salt and freshly ground black pepper to taste. Give it a good mix to coat the mushrooms, and cook for about 30 seconds to 1 minute.

4) Pour the cooked polenta into the pan and mix everything up well. Allow to simmer gently for 2 minutes, or until the sides of the polenta are slightly crispy and you can move it around the pan without leaving any liquid behind.

5) Turn out onto a warm plate, sprinkle with some more thyme and voilà, dinner is served!

Well I do hope you have enjoyed my culinary journey into Polenta (I know I certainly have!) and that I didn’t bore you too much with my obsessive writings about Grits (seriously though, they are so good. Thank goodness I found polenta to rekindle my love for them!). Please feel free to leave a comment or two on what you thought of my very first blog post, as I would love to hear from you. I’m very new to all this and don’t want to make an idiot of myself just yet…

I hope you do try my recipe for Sautéed Polenta Mushrooms with Garlic and Thyme – I would love to hear your verdict on it.

Until next time,

The Country Kitchen x

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