Creamy polenta with kale and mushrooms

Salty, garlicky kale and mushrooms get a big boost of flavor from bacon and thyme and the polenta is creamy and rich with Parmesan cheese.

The Garden of Eating
Parmesan and butter make for a creamy polenta topped with the kale and mushrooms.

This hearty dish is particularly delightful on a chilly, gray day – the kind we're having more and more of right now. It's warm and rich and savory and fills you up. Salty, garlicky kale and mushrooms get a big boost of flavor from bacon and thyme and the polenta is creamy and rich with Parmesan cheese. A perfect mix of flavors in every bite.

You can definitely make this without the bacon if you are not a meat/pork eater and it will still be very yummy. But if you do eat pork, a little bacon or pancetta adds a rich, smoky flavor that is really good. If I don't have any of cousin Norah's bacon left in the freezer, my fallback store-bought choice is Applegate Farms organic Sunday bacon.

Many people are confused by the distinction between polenta and cornmeal. I was, too, until I looked it up a few months ago. The basic gist is that it's all the same stuff, just ground to varying degrees of fineness with polenta being the coarsest of the lot. So although you can substitute medium-ground cornmeal for polenta, you should not substitute fine-ground cornmeal for polenta as the result will be unappealingly pasty.

Just a note that this polenta requires constant stirring while it's cooking so don't expect to multi-task while you're making it.

You can use criminis, button mushrooms, portabellos, maitakes, whatever you have on hand. Cook the mushrooms in the fat that's left over from frying the bacon, adding garlic and stock and letting it cook down until you're left with tender, savory mushrooms.

Blanch the kale in boiling water to soften it a bit before you add it to the mushrooms, garlic and bacon then let it cook for a few minutes before you turn off the heat and stir in the lemon zest and fresh thyme.

Stir the Parmesan and butter into the polenta and ladle it out onto the plates. Top with the kale and mushrooms and a sprinkling of grated Parmesan before serving. Pause for a moment before you take your first bite to appreciate the mix of scents in the steam rising from your plate – floral lemon, woodsy mushrooms, smoky bacon, bright thyme, and salty Parmesan – divine!

Creamy Polenta with Kale & Mushrooms
Serves 6

1-1/4 pounds organic kale, stems removed, cut or torn into manageable-sized pieces
4 cups organic whole milk
3-1/2 cups water
2 cups organic polenta (do not use fine-ground cornmeal though you can substitute medium-ground cornmeal if you do not have polenta on hand)
1/2 teaspoon sea salt
3/4 teaspoon freshly ground black pepper
4 ounces pancetta or bacon, coarsely chopped (omit for a vegetarian version)
4 ounces mushrooms (such as crimini, oyster, and stemmed shitake), sliced
4 tablespoons extra-virgin organic olive oil, divided
1 garlic clove, minced or pressed
1/2 cup chicken broth (use vegetable broth for a vegetarian version)
2 tablespoons chopped fresh thyme
1 tablespoon grated lemon peel
4 tablespoons unsalted organic butter
2/3 cup freshly grated Parmesan cheese

1. Bring a large pot of salted water to boil and cook the kale until tender, about 6 minutes, then drain.

2. Combine the milk, water, polenta, salt, and pepper in a large, heavy saucepan over medium heat and bring to a boil, whisking constantly. Turn the heat down to low and simmer until the mixture becomes thick, stirring occasionally, about 20 minutes. Turn off the heat and remove the pan.

3. While the polenta is cooking, sauté the pancetta in a large, heavy frying pan or cast iron skillet over medium-high heat until it turns golden brown, only about 3 minutes. Using a slotted spoon, transfer it to a brown paper bag (or paper towels though they’re not nearly as good as an old grocery bag!) to drain.

4. Add the mushrooms and 2 tablespoons of the olive oil to the skillet and sauté until tender, about 6 minutes. Stir in the kale and pancetta. Add the garlic and broth and simmer until the broth is slightly reduced, about 6 minutes. Stir in the chopped thyme, lemon peel, and the remaining 2 tablespoons of olive oil. Season to taste with salt and pepper.

5. Stir the butter and Parmesan cheese into the polenta and divide among plates (or bowls). Top with the kale mixture and serve.

Related post on The Garden of Good Eating: Lemon-Scented Pasta With Swiss Chard & Ricotta

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