Stirring a pot of polenta can be tricky for a short cook like me who has to balance on a step stool to reach into the steaming mash. But with a double boiler, the polenta practically cooks itself perfectly (without the risk of a burn). The double-boiler method uses lower, slower heat so that the cornmeal grains swell and become exceptionally creamy and sweet. Served straight from the pot and drizzled with butter, sprinkled with cheese, this polenta is the ultimate comfort dish. Topped with robust mushroom duxelles, it makes an elegant first course or light meal.
Duxelles, named for 17th-century gourmand Marquis d’Uxelles, is a hearty paste of chopped mushrooms and garlic sautéed in butter with plenty of herbs. It contains no meat, is rich and satisfying, stores for a week in the refrigerator and freezes nicely. I keep it on hand as a base for soups, to top baked potatoes, fill omelets, toss with pasta, and to slather on pizza, bruschetta, risotto and this polenta. Granted, there’s a fair amount of chopping upfront, but once you’ve started cooking, you’re pretty much done.
For this classic recipe, you don’t need perfectly fresh mushrooms; the box of white button mushrooms that’s lingered in the crisper too long is fine. (Of course, if they’re slimy, toss them out.) If they’re simply shriveled and dry, cooking mushrooms in butter will plump them back up. Now that our food co-ops offer such a wide variety of locally grown fungi, try using a mix in this recipe — portobellos, shiitake, large-stem oyster, lion’s manes, chanterelle, porcini and others — from our organic mushroom farmers, such as Mississippi Mushrooms, Cherry Tree Mushrooms and Forest Mushrooms.
Store mushrooms in a paper bag in the refrigerator. The plastic traps in moisture and makes them soggy, expediting decay. The big debate when preparing mushrooms is whether to rinse them before cooking. They are like sponges, absorbing moisture, which makes them difficult to sauté and brown. It’s best to clean mushrooms with a damp paper towel, or dust off the dirt and grit with a pastry brush. When sautéing mushrooms, don’t overcrowd the pan. You want enough room for the liquid to evaporate so they don’t steam.
Polenta with mushroom duxelles makes a wonderful meal; but the two components are terrific in other dishes, as well. So double the recipes to enjoy now and another day.
Beth Dooley is the author of “In Winter’s Kitchen.” Find her at bethdooleyskitchen.com.