Cornmeal (Recipe: polenta with wild mushroom ragout)
An amazing thing to know about cornmeal:
Cornmeal can be anything you want it to be -- and how many times in life do we wish we could make something, or someone, be exactly what we want it to be? Cornmeal obliges. It can be smooth or coarse, thick or thin, yellow or white or blue or red. It can be soft, like porridge. It can be firm enough to cut into circles or stars or elephants, if you want to eat elephants. A sprinkling of cornmeal can slide a pizza into the oven, or coat baked chicken with a delicate crust, or transform into the cornbread that's just perfect with barbecue.
Cooking or baking?
Stoneground cornmeal has a very short shelf life: a month in the cupboard, two months in the refrigerator, four months in the freezer. Commercially produced cornmeal (the kind you buy in a canister in the supermarket) has been degerminated, which lengthens the shelf life but also removes some of the flavor; you can store the supermarket cornmeal for a year in the cupboard, and up to two years in the freezer. In either case, once you've opened the package of cornmeal, store the leftover in a glass container with a tight-fitting lid, or in a heavy freezer container.
Everyone omnivore needs at least one glorious vegetarian entree for entertaining in their repertoire. This is mine. I've been making it for so many years that I've lost track of the original source (Gourmet, maybe?), and if I ever find it, I'll update the notes here. You need a very flavorful broth for this dish, something like a mushroom or roasted vegetable broth (or beef broth, if you're not making this vegetarian). Special thanks to my friend Bob Fishman who took the dramatic stovetop photo at the top of this post. My polenta never looked more like a star -- or a whole galaxy of stars. Serves 6-8.
1 large onion, chopped fine
4 cloves garlic, minced
1 tsp dried rosemary, crumbled, or 2 tsp minced fresh rosemary, or 2 tsp fresh thyme leaves
4 Tbsp olive oil
1 lb cremini or white mushrooms sliced thin
1 lb fresh shiitake mushrooms, stems discarded, quartered
1 Tbsp tomato paste
1 cup dry red wine
1 Tbsp cornstarch
1-1/3 cups mushroom broth (or beef broth)
2 tsp Worcestershire sauce
6 cups water
2 cups yellow cornmeal
2 Tbsp unsalted butter, cut into pieces
1 cup grated Parmigiano-Reggiano cheese
1/3 cup minced fresh flat-leaf parsley
1/4 lb mozzarella cheese, shredded
Preheat oven to 400°F. Spray a 3-quart casserole dish or clay cazuela with cooking spray (like PAM) and set aside. Spray a sheet pan with cooking spray and set that aside, too.
Make the mushroom ragout: In a large deep skillet, heat 3 Tbsp olive oil over medium heat. Cook onion, garlic and rosemary, stirring occasionally until the onion is softened. Add mushrooms and salt to taste, and cook over moderately high heat, stirring, for 10 minutes or until the liquid the mushrooms gives off is evaporated. Stir in tomato paste and the wine, and boil until most of the liquid is evaporated. In a small bowl stir the cornstarch into the broth, add the mixture and the Worcestershire sauce to the mushroom mixture (this is now the ragout), and bring it to a boil, stirring. Reduce heat to simmer and cook 2 minutes. Season with salt and pepper to taste. Turn off the heat and set aside.
Make the polenta: In a large, heavy saucepan, bring the water with 1 Tbsp olive oil to a boil and add 1 cup of the cornmeal, a little at a time, whisking constantly. Reduce heat to low, add the remaining 1 cup cornmeal in a slow stream, stirring constantly, and bring mixture to a boil. Remove pan from the heat and with a wooden spoon stir in the butter, 2/3 cup of the parmesan, the parsley, and salt and pepper to taste.
Spread 1/3 of the polenta on the sheet pan to 1/4 inch thick, and chill for 20 minutes, or until it is firm. While it is chilling, working quickly, spread half the remaining polenta in the prepared casserole dish or cazuela, top it with half the mushroom ragout, and top the ragout with the mozzarella. Spread the remaining polenta quickly over the mozzarella and top with the remaining ragout.
Invert the polenta sheet onto a work surface and with one or more star-shaped (or any other shape) cookie cutters, cut out as many stars as possible (use different sizes for a nice effect). Arrange the stars decoratively on the ragout and sprinkle with the remaining parmesan. The dish may be prepared up to this point and refrigerated, covered, for up to 2 days.
Bake uncovered in the upper third of the oven for 30-40 minutes, or until the polenta stars are golden.
Other recipes that use cornmeal:
Cornmeal crusted salmon with mussel broth, from Guilty Kitchen
Cornmeal honey muffins, from Lisa's Kitchen
Blue cornmeal crusted green chiles, from Use Real Butter
Blueberry corn muffins, from Gluten-Free Goddess
Arepas, from Gluten-Free Girl and the Chef