Polenta was a special treat at Stefano’s mom’s house in Rome. She made a huge pot, and Stefano’s father was in charge of stirring it, which he did with a strong branch from one of their olive trees that he’d cleaned and whittled for this purpose.
Instead of using plates she poured it over a spianatoia, or spianatora as it’s referred to in Roman dialect – a large, wooden board set on top of the dining room table. Lifting the board from side to side and corner to corner causes the polenta to spread smoothly over the top, and the wood absorbs excess water, helping it set.
She topped the polenta with a delicious sauce, usually either sugo con la spuntatura di maiale (tomato sauce with short ribs) or sugo con baccalà (tomato sauce with salt cod). We all sat around the table, forks in hand, and ate that wonderful polenta straight from the spianatoia, gradually working our way from the edges of the polenta to the center, always ready to ward off the person sitting next to us in defense of our personal portion of polenta.
Another classic from Italy’s cucina povera, polenta originated in northern Italy and has become an Italian culinary tradition. Made from cornmeal and water, polenta can be served in countless ways. Thicker or softer, with a coarser texture or creamier, and with many different types of toppings.
Traditionally, polenta is cooked in a paiolo, or large copper pot, for an hour or more. It needs to be stirred continually. Fellow blogger Paola of An Italian Cooking in the Midwest, a true Bergamasca from the north of Italy, is a polenta expert and even owns an electric paiolo with a motorized blade that stirs the polenta for you! It was from Paola’s post on polenta that we learned the trick of adding the polenta slowly and stirring it in before the water boils to avoid it turning out lumpy. Until we have an electric paiolo of our own, we will use quick-cooking polenta, as we did for this recipe.
We wanted to make a sophisticated polenta, one that could be served as a part of an elegant holiday meal. We added brie to the polenta durante la cottura (during cooking) to give it a rich and creamy quality, and topped it with wild mushrooms and sausage sauteed in garlic, olive oil and white wine.
Ingredients for 4 small servings
1 cup Brie, rind removed and cubed into 1/4 in. pieces
1/4 pound ground pork
4 cups mushrooms**, thinly sliced
2 cloves garlic
1/2 cup dry white wine
1 bunch flat leaf Italian parsley
1 Tablespoon butter
Crushed red pepper – optional
*Look for Italian instant polenta, the dry kind, not pre-cooked. If you cannot find an Italian brand, there are several American brands of polenta, and even Quaker cornmeal will suffice if needed. The general guidelines for dosage is 1 part polenta to 4 parts water. We used 1 cups polenta in 4 cups water, but follow the directions on the packaging.
**We used Porcini, Shiitake, Oyster, Portobello and White mushrooms, but any variation is just fine. The Porcini and Shiitake were dried, and in that case need to be rehydrated before use.
Wash and thinly slice the mushrooms. Add olive oil and butter to a large saucepan, and place it over medium heat. Mince a clove of garlic and chop the parsley, and sauté them in olive oil and the butter. Add the mushrooms, white wine and salt. Let cook over medium heat until the mushrooms release their juices and become dark brown and tender, and the liquids concentrate.
While the mushrooms are cooking, mince the other clove of garlic and in a separate pan, sauté it in a few tablespoons of olive oil. Add the ground pork, 1/4 cup of wine, salt, and if you wish a dash of crushed red pepper. Let simmer until the pork is no longer pink and the wine has cooked off. Stir frequently so that the pork crumbles into small pieces. Mix the pork and mushrooms, and set aside.
In a medium saucepan, bring the water to boil. When the water is hot but before it reaches a boil, gradually add the polenta, stirring continually with a wire whisk to prevent lumps from forming. Add the Brie, and stir continually until the polenta thickens.
Pour the polenta onto small plates, top with the mushrooms and sausage, and serve hot.
Download a pdf of the recipe Polenta con funghi e salsiccia
We paired our polenta con funghi e salsiccia with a Sauvignon Blanc by Fattori. It’s a well-structured wine with a crisp acidity that compliments the complex flavors of this polenta dish well.