Creamy Fall Polenta

Has the cooler weather made you crave creamy comfort foods that would have otherwise been too rich just a few weeks ago? Now is the perfect time to start making porridges, gruels and slow cooked grains for breakfast, lunch, dinner, or whenever you need a belly-warming fix.

While cream of wheat, oatmeal and rice congee quickly come to mind when thinking about this food category, polenta falls squarely within the realm as well. Not just confined to premade plastic-sheathed tubes of firm, sliceable cooked cornmeal, this Italian specialty in its most basic form is simply stone-ground dried corn—coarse cornmeal—that is simmered in liquid until it is transformed into a thick porridge that is neither runny nor completely stiff. To give it some flavor and richness, the cooked polenta is often finished with a rich addition of dairy fat (a pat of butter, a drizzle of cream, a scoop of mascarpone or a spoonful of crème fraiche) and a generous sprinkling of cheese (most often a hard grating variety, such as Parmesan).

Creamy polenta with mushrooms and kale

The final product can be placed in a bowl, topped and eaten right away. Alternatively, it can be poured into a baking dish in an even layer, cooled, cut into pieces, and pan-fried—a better homemade version of the packaged stuff. The recipe below is a straightforward version of porridge-style polenta that is paired with an easy, flavorful kale and mushroom topping, which cooks while the polenta simmers. Put together, the components make a wonderful base for a one-bowl dinner when you add whatever protein you happen to have on hand. Eating it for breakfast? Put a fried egg, crumbled bacon or breakfast sausage patty on top. Lunch? Try adding shredded rotisserie chicken, seared shrimp or poached salmon. For a heartier dinner entrée, top with sliced steak, meatballs, roast pork slices or a few pieces of leftover pot roast. If you’re aiming to stay vegetarian but still need some protein, pair with some pan-fried marinated tofu slices or braised lentils/beans.

The beauty of this dish lies in the fact that it is customizable in a variety of ways. The kale can even be replaced with chard, collard greens or spinach, and the mushrooms swapped out for bell peppers or halved cherry tomatoes. It’s all up to you!

Creamy Polenta with Kale and Mushrooms

Polenta in a baking dish

If you are making this dish to serve 1 or 2 people, do not halve the recipe. Instead, pour the remaining polenta into a container or baking dish, cover and refrigerate until firm. These leftovers can be sliced and pan-fried. If you wish to eat the polenta in the style of porridge again, warm it up in a saucepan with additional liquid until it is reconstituted to your desired consistency.

Ingredients

Uncooked polenta

4 cups low-sodium chicken broth

1/2 cup water

Kosher salt

1 cup polenta or coarse cornmeal

2 Tbs. olive oil

1 large shallot, thinly sliced (about 1/2 cup)

1 tsp. minced garlic

8 oz. sliced cremini mushrooms

1 bunch lacinato kale, stems removed, leaves thinly sliced

1/4 tsp. ground fennel

Freshly ground black pepper

1 1/2 Tbs. unsalted butter, cubed

1/2 cup grated Parmesan cheese

Cooking Instructions

Saucepan

1. In a large saucepan over high heat, bring the broth, water and 1 1/2 tsp. salt to a boil. Add the polenta in a slow, steady stream, stirring constantly with a wooden spoon or rubber spatula. Lower the heat to low, cover and cook until the polenta is thick and starts pulling away from the sides of the pan, 25 to 30 minutes, stirring every few minutes.

2. Meanwhile, heat 1 Tbs. of the oil in a large skillet over medium heat. Add the shallot and cook until softened and lightly browned, 3 to 4 minutes. Add the garlic and cook until fragrant, about 1 minute, stirring constantly. Transfer to a small bowl. 

3. Add the remaining 1 Tbs. oil to the skillet and raise the heat to medium-high. Add the mushrooms and cook until browned and their liquid has evaporated, 4 to 5 minutes. Add the kale, fennel, 1/4 tsp. salt and a pinch of pepper. Sauté until the kale is tender, about 5 minutes. Stir in the shallot mixture.

4. When the polenta is done cooking, remove from heat. Stir in the butter and Parmesan. Divide the polenta among 4 serving bowls and top with the kale-mushroom mixture.

Serves 4.

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