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Mario Batali: Polenta, the ultimate Italian comfort food

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By Mario Batali
Saturday, Oct. 27, 2012, 8:54 p.m.
 

Originally made with chestnut flour, polenta was at one time the catchall term for any grain boiled to a porridge and flavored with spices and cheese. When corn came from the New World to the Italian Peninsula, polenta was made with cornmeal. Today, polenta is found in two forms: as a solid cake or as a creamy grits-like mush. In this recipe, I go with the mush.

Polenta is less labor-intensive than it seems. It is cornmeal cooked in salt water. Many insist that you start with traditional coarse yellow cornmeal and stir constantly for 45 minutes to an hour. Some start with lukewarm water and cook over low heat for upward of two hours. In Piedmont, they cook polenta exclusively in a copper pot over an open fire.

I often like to use quick-cook polenta. Use five cups of water for one cup of polenta; then season the water with sugar and salt, honey or thyme (the sweetness of the sugar or honey complements the corn flavor). After the cornmeal is whisked in and you're free from the danger of lumpiness, cook the polenta over medium-high heat for 5 or 6 minutes.

I serve this dish hot and runny, directly from the pot. Polenta can be accompanied by any number of ragus, vegetables or meats. It's the perfect substitute for pasta. This is comfort food of another world.

Mario Batali, owner of Babbo, Lupa, Otto and other restaurants, and author of “Molto Batali,” contributes a column twice a month to Trib Total Media.

Soft Polenta With Grilled Portobellos and Treviso

4 heads Treviso radicchio

6 large portobello mushrooms, cleaned

¼ cup red-wine vinegar

4 medium-size cloves garlic, thinly sliced

4 salt-packed anchovy fillets, rinsed, drained and finely chopped

About ½ cup coarsely chopped, fresh marjoram leaves

½ cup extra-virgin olive oil

5 cups water

1 tablespoon salt

2 tablespoons sugar

1 cup quick-cooking polenta

8 ounces stracchino cheese or soft goat cheese, cut into ½-inch dice

Cut each head of radicchio in half lengthwise and place them, cut side up, in an 11-by-16-inch baking dish.

Remove the portobello stems and cut them in half lengthwise. Cut the caps in half, and place the caps and stems in the same baking dish.

In a small bowl, mix together the vinegar, garlic, anchovies, marjoram and olive oil. Pour this over the radicchio and portobellos, and let stand for 1 hour.

In a 3-quart saucepan, bring 5 cups of water to a boil. Add the salt and sugar. Then, drizzle in the polenta in a thin stream, whisking constantly until all the polenta has been incorporated and the mixture is beginning to thicken.

Remove the pan from the heat, switch to a wooden spoon, and continue to stir until the polenta is as thick as paste. Stir in the stracchino pieces. Cover the pan tightly with plastic wrap and set it in a warm place.

Heat the broiler.

Place the portobellos and radicchio on a cookie sheet, reserving the marinade that drips off, and broil until just lightly charred on one side, for 4 to 5 minutes. Turn them over and broil for 3 to 4 minutes on the other side. Remove, and set aside until they are cool enough to handle.

Cut the mushrooms into ¼-inch-thich strips, and cut the radicchio in half lengthwise. In a large bowl, combine the mushrooms, radicchio and the reserved marinade. Toss gently but thoroughly.

Spoon the polenta onto the center of a large wooden board, arrange the mushroom-radicchio mixture in the center, like a turban, and serve.

Makes 8-10 servings as a first course, 6 as a main.

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