Polenta is a popular staple back home in Brazil. I grew up eating lots of it and never got bored. My mother cooked it on her fire wood stove in an iron pan. It had to cook forever! So she would use a wooden spoon to stir it occasionally while she prepared other delicious dishes at the same time. Wood fires are tricky and you can’t always get excellent temperature control. Occasionally the polenta would burn a bit at the bottom. That was the part I liked the most. That burned crust had a singular smoky flavor whose memory makes my mouth water. Mom didn’t like it, despite everyone praising it to the skies. She was a perfectionist in the kitchen.
My mother made her polenta in one of two ways. Both started with just corn, salt and water. For the first variation, she’d cover it with a nice tomato sauce. Alternatively, she’d let it harden then cut it into finger-sized pieces which she’d fry in hot oil. Sometimes day old polenta would appear for our breakfast too. Delish!
Yotam Ottolenghi in Plenty tells the story of his dad making polenta for him while growing up which reminded me of my own childhood. So this dish is in the spirit of Ottolenghi’s father and my mother. I’ve modified his recipe mostly because I didn’t have all the ingredients. And of course I made the polenta mom’s way (on an electric stove if you were wondering).
shiitake mushroom polenta with truffle salt
6½ cups vegetable broth*
2 cups yellow corn grits (I used organic Bob’s Red Mill)
1 tsp kosher salt
½ cup 6 month aged Manchego cheese, sliced thinly
1/3 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano
2½ cups fresh shiitake mushrooms, halved with stems if soft enough
3 tbsp butter
4 tbsp olive oil
1 tbsp chopped chives
3 cloves garlic, minced
*for the broth:
1 stalk celery
Begin by making the broth. Fill a pot with 8-10 cups of water, add celery, carrot and shallot, bring to a boil and simmer for 15 minutes. Discard solids.
Add 6 and ½ cups veggie broth to a heavy bottomed pan and bring it to a boil. Add salt, gradually stir in corn grits. Reduce temperature to medium low and cook for 30 minutes. You need to stir it frequently to prevent sticking. A whisk does this job fairly well.
Ten minutes before polenta is ready turn the broiler on and prepare the mushrooms. Heat a large skillet on high. I did mine in two batches. Add ½ of the olive oil. Once it becomes aromatic, toss in half of the mushrooms and sauté them until slightly caramelized on the cut side. Stir to cook evenly. In the last minute, add ½ of the garlic. Toss together with mushrooms and just cook long enough for raw aromas to dissipate. Transfer to a bowl and keep warm. Repeat process with the second batch.
At this point polenta should be ready. Turn heat off. Add butter and Parmegiano-Reggiano. Stir. Add a bit more kosher salt if needed. Pour into a serving platter. Spread slices of Manchego cheese over the finished polenta. Broil the dish long enough for cheese to melt and become bubbly, about a minute or so. Remove from oven, top polenta with mushrooms and sprinkle with truffle salt. Return to the oven and broil for a couple of minutes more. Remove from heat. Sprinkle with chives and voilá!