I’m still learning to cook. The way I see it, I always will be. And that’s the beauty of food and cooking. The more you explore and learn, the more there is to know, to try.
I started cooking when I was out on my own, out of necessity at first. Then I found I enjoyed it. Still, like most guys who sort of dabble in the kitchen, I developed maybe a half dozen dishes that were pretty good and coasted on them. But one day, I happened to look at a recipe and realized that (a) I could do this and (b) I had a pretty good idea what it would taste like. This was a real “Aha!” moment for me, the first of many. And the beginning of going from liking to cook to loving it.
Next came looking at a recipe and thinking “I bet it would be even better if I added….” After that, applying techniques from a recipe to entirely different ingredients – and then, just taking a bunch of ingredients and turning them into something pretty good with no recipe at all.
I know I will never be a great cook, but most days, I think I’m a good cook. And on rare occasions, I feel downright inspired. Most often, this happens when I see some random little detail – in a recipe, in an article, on my plate in a restaurant – and run with it, taking it in a completely different direction.
That’s how this recipe happened. In the March issue of "Saveur," a recipe for pappardelle with cauliflower and mustard brown butter included fried capers. I could immediately taste the capers, tart, briny, and slightly crisp from frying. Also latching onto the idea of mustard from the recipe title, I dismissed everything else and wondered what I could do with the capers and mustard. Mashed potatoes came to mind almost right away, but I felt it needed something else. Inspired, or goaded, by a surplus of mushrooms in the fridge, I decided their rich earthiness would balance the tang of the capers and mustard. Suddenly, a recipe had come together in my head. I made some notes and patted myself on the back.
Later, though, going through e-mails, the word “polenta” jumped out of a subject line (yes, that’s the kind of e-mail that fills my inbox). I’m not even sure I clicked through to the recipe, but in that instant, polenta replaced the potatoes for me.
Polenta is classic Italian comfort food, a porridge made from coarse cornmeal. It can be served creamy, as I’ve done here, or chilled, cut into squares and then baked, fried, or even grilled. Traditionally, polenta is stone ground from corn grown in Italy. Polenta is slowly cooked over low heat – think 20 to 30 minutes – in water, often supplemented with milk or cream and finished with butter, plus maybe some cheese. It is also a base that invites improvisation.
You can find quick-cooking polenta, but most recipes advise against it. What you really don’t want, at least for this recipe, are the tubes of pre-cooked polenta, ready to be sliced and fried (but those are convenient for other uses). While I found a few brands of Italian polenta at a supermarket that prides itself on stocking European ingredients, I actually opted for American-grown Bob’s Red Mill Coarse Ground Cornmeal. It, too, is stone ground, and the ingredient list was refreshingly brief: whole grain corn.
A word on those fried capers. The frying diminished their vinegary tang, reducing them to crunchy little salt bombs. But they were splendid in that role. I can absolutely see them livening up mashed potatoes, salads, or braised chicken, or fish.
Creamy polenta with mushrooms and fried capers
Serves 4 to 6 as a side, 2 as a vegetarian meal
4 cups water, plus more as needed
1/3 cup olive oil
1/4 cup capers, drained
1 cup uncooked polenta
2 to 3 tablespoons unsalted butter, cut into slices
1 tablespoon Dijon mustard
1/2 cup freshly grated Parmesan
Chopped fresh Italian parsley
2 tablespoons butter
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons dry sherry, port, or vermouth (See Kitchen Notes for substitutions)
8 ounces sliced mushroom, button or crimini
1. Bring the 4 cups of water to a brisk boil in a heavy saucepan. While the water is heating, fry the capers. Heat oil in a medium, high-sided sauté pan or skillet over medium-high heat. Add capers and fry, stirring frequently, until crisp, about 6 to 8 minutes. Transfer to a paper towel-lined plate with a slotted spoon. Set aside.
2. Cook the polenta. Season the boiling water generously with salt and slowly add polenta, whisking briskly as you do. Reduce heat to low and whisk constantly for 5 minutes. Cover and cook, whisking frequently, until tender and creamy, 20 to 30 minutes or more. (Plenty of coarseness will remain in the polenta, and that’s okay. In the context of the toppings, the coarseness works. You just don’t want the bits of corn grit to be hard.) If the polenta is becoming too thick before it has cooked long enough, stir in some extra water. Turn off heat and stir in butter, Dijon mustard, and Parmesan. Taste and adjust seasonings with salt. Keep covered until ready to serve.
3. While polenta is cooking, cook the mushrooms. Wipe the skillet you used for the capers clean and melt butter over medium-low flame. Remove pan from flame and add sherry (if using) and salt. Return to flame and add mushrooms, stirring to coat mushrooms. Cover pan and let cook undisturbed for 7 to 8 minutes. The mushrooms with throw off plenty of liquid during the process. Uncover pan and let liquid cook off for a minute or so.
4. Plate the polenta. Spoon either into a serving bowl or individual shallow bowls. Top with mushrooms, capers and chopped parsley. Serve.
Booze-free mushrooms. f you don’t like to cook with liquor, substitute apple cider. Or just sauté the mushrooms with butter and maybe some minced garlic. It will still be delicious.
Reheating leftover polenta. Refrigerating polenta will cause it to solidify. Add a little milk or cream or water to it and gently reheat in a saucepan to return it to a creamy state.
Related post on Blue Kitchen: Giving cornmeal its due: Bacon Sage Polenta