Fried Polenta with Tomatoes and Mushrooms 

This past week I was taking stock of our limited shelf space in the kitchen because I was thinking about buying a new piece of kitchen equipment. I was sitting on the floor trying to create space on the bottom rack of one of my favorite Ikea purchases of all time and playing tetris with an ice cream maker, a food processor, a hot water heater, and all my different sugars and grains. This, of course led to me sorting through all my containers to see what  hadn’t been used in a while and that’s when I saw the corn meal.Typically, I’m buying corn meal to coat the bottom of loaves of bread and also because I’m thinking about how great some hot corn bread would be. (I haven’t made corn bread in years.) It goes like this: buy a package of corn meal, use a little, purge it eventually, and then, soon after, buy a new bag.

Maybe it’s because I’ve been binging on episodes of Chopped recently, but “polenta!” was the first thing I that came to mind about how to put this corn meal to use. Not only haven’t I cooked much polenta but I haven’t eaten much of it either. My only real contact with it at home was buying those logs in the grocery and trying to slice off discs to fry which never really won me over. I set to work scouring my cookbooks and the internet for advice on how to cook it. Turns out…there are so many ways to cook polenta!

This took a few tries to get right. Polenta, like risotto, needs a lot of attention but corn meal might just be fussier than arborio rice. After totally botching the first attempt, it got much easier. The internet taught me some tricks like sifting the cornmeal through my fingers and working really slowly in the beginning. It’s actually reminded me of that challenge when you’re a kid: pat your head with one hand and rub your belly with the other at the same time. This adult-in-the-kitchen version is whisk quickly with one hand and slowly sift in corn meal with the other.

I sampled a bowl of polenta from a less-than-perfect batch and it was really very good (even if it was kinda lumpy). I topped it with cheese and hot sauce. I go through hot sauce at an alarming rate. But for this recipe though I had frying it on my mind so I let the winning polenta cool in a loaf pan and left it in the fridge overnight to set. Lunchtime the next day all I had to do was cut slices and fry.

This is full on savory. The polenta was made with stock and I mixed half a cup of grated sharp cheddar cheese into it. To top it off, since I’m still eating up as many tomatoes as possible, I roasted up some grape tomatoes with garlic, and then sautéed a mix of mushrooms with thyme to go with it. Because in my head cheese, tomatoes, and mushrooms all go so well on a pizza so why not a polenta! Mmmpizza…
This was a little time intensive to put together but totally worth it. It definitely got me over my uncertainty about cooking polenta and it turns out it’s easy enough to whisk up a pot of it. I can see myself making this as a quick app before a meal because everything can be made in advance and then brought together beautifully at the last minute. Also if you cool the polenta in a flatter pan (but keeping it thick enough), you can cut out different shapes to serve as edible plates for all sorts of toppings.
Fried Polenta with Tomatoes and Mushrooms

Serves: Makes 3-4 larger servings or 6-8 smaller depending on how you cut the polenta

Ingredients
Polenta
  • 1 Cup Corn Meal
  • 3 cups + 2 Tbsp Stock*
  • ½ Cup of Sharp Cheddar Cheese, Grated (optional)
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
  • Butter or Oil for Frying
  • Cilantro to Garnish (optional)
Tomatoes
  • 1 Pint Grape Tomatoes
  • 6 Cloves of Garlic, Smashed
  • 1 Tbsp Olive Oil
  • Salt and Pepper to taste
Mushrooms
  • A mix of Shiitake, Portobello, and Crimini/Button Mushrooms, chopped into cubes and slices
  • 3-4 Sprigs Fresh Thyme
  • 1-2 tsp Olive Oil
  • Salt, Pepper, and Dried Red Pepper Flakes to taste
Instructions
For the Polenta
  1. Bring the stock to a boil over medium-high heat in a lidded pan. If the stock you're using is not salted, add salt to the water (start with about a tsp, you can always adjust later). Once the stock is boiled sift the corn meal by the handful into the stock very slowly, whisking quickly but gently the whole time (this will help you get fewer lumps). Keep whisking once till it's all incorporated and smooth.
  2. Lower the heat to very low and cover.
  3. Set a timer for 8 minutes. After 8 minutes take the lid off and give it a good whisk reincorporating everything and making sure it doesn't dry out. You might think it looks done but it should ideally cook for 30-40 minutes. Give it a taste now and taste again in 30 min - you'll notice a sweetness and richness that wasn't there before. Keep whisking every 8 minutes and replacing the lid after each session (do this about 4 times)
  4. At the very end whisk in the cheese and salt/pepper to taste. I fried my polenta in a non-stick pan. If you don't have a non-stick the cheese you mixed in might cause the polenta to "melt" a little while frying, making it stick. If you'd prefer not to gamble you can also melt the cheese over the polenta once it's fried and done.
  5. Pour out the polenta immediately into the form you want into to mold to. I used a loaf pan. Let it cool fully, then cover and place in the fridge for at least a couple hours or overnight.
  6. When ready to fry slice or use a shape (cup, cookie cutter...) to make individual pieces. I fried mine in  butter over medium heat-high till each side was crispy and golden (about 3-4 minutes for each side).
For the Tomatoes
  1. Preheat oven to 400°F
  2. Toss all the ingredients on a parchment lined sheet tray together and roast 18-20 minutes or until garlic is golden and tomatoes are popping open and have a nice brown on them.
For the Mushrooms
  1. Cook everything together in a pan over medium heat until all the water in the mushrooms has cooked out.
To Serve
  1. Mix together the tomatoes and mushrooms and spoon over the fried polenta slices. Optional: garnish with cilantro.
Notes
*I used a meatless/pareve "No Chicken" stock from Imagine because I find it richer and more flavorful than the vegetable versions but any stock would be great here