Polenta is like Carmen Sandiego, that elusive and trench coated criminal mastermind who bamboozled every 90s kid with a computer. Just like Carmen, polenta is a tricky one to track down.
I spent a good twenty minutes in Kroger earlier this week, ping pong-ing between the baking aisle, the pasta aisle and the breakfast cereals shelf, but the closest I got was a small, expensive box of instant polenta (no thank you). I even googled “where in grocery store is polenta” (I apologize for being a millennial) but only found a few forums of equally confused would-be polenta eaters. Finally, I remembered that Bloomington is blessed by having the greatest grocery store ever and zipped over to Sahara Mart to try my luck there. I thought I’d hit another dead end when my very poor description of polenta only got a blank look from the cashier, but a few more minutes of poking around the store led me at last to a bag of Bob’s Red Mill Corn Grits (Also Known As Polenta). (For future reference, it was by the oatmeal.)
But what IS polenta, other than hard-to-find? The answer is not so straightforward. First off, more googling has taught me that polenta is not an ingredient, exactly, but a traditional Italian dish prepared from “a variety of coarsely ground grains or starches cooked into a porridge.” Cornmeal polenta, or corn grits as they say over at Bob’s Red Mill, is by far the most popular style today, but don’t start reaching for your box of cornmeal and expect it to turn out like Strega Nona’s. True polenta is coarsely-ground and, if you want to get technical, made from a specific variety of corn called otto file in Italian. Fussy, maybe, but when it comes to the culinary arts, the Italians know what they’re doing.
And don’t be discouraged by my polenta-hunting story. This creamy dreamy golden comfort food–with a generous swirl of tangy goat cheese melted in–is so worth the grocer’s blank stares.
goat cheese polenta with garlicky mushrooms & kale
Adapted from The Easy Vegetarian Kitchen
4 cups water
1 cup polenta
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 tablespoons unsalted butter
1/4 cup milk (2% or whole)
2 ounces goat cheese, divided
1-2 teaspoons olive oil
6 cloves garlic, minced
8 ounces mushrooms, sliced (I used baby bellas)
1 bunch kale, stems removed and chopped
salt & pepper
sunflower seeds (optional)
Get the polenta going first. Bring water to a boil in a large pot. Add the polenta and salt, then reduce heat to very low. Cover and let cook for about 30 minutes, stirring every 5 minutes.
Once cooked, remove polenta from heat and stir in the butter, milk and 1.5 ounces of goat cheese.
While the polenta is cooking, turn your attention to the mushrooms and kale (but don’t forget to stir the polenta!).
Heat olive oil in a large pan. Add garlic and cook for a couple minutes, until fragrant. Add mushrooms and a bit of salt, and let cook for 5-7 minutes, until the mushrooms have released their moisture and are beginning to brown. Finally, add your heaps and heaps of kale (it will shrink down, I promise!) and pepper. Saute the whole mixture for about 10 minutes more. If things seems a little dry, feel free to add a splash of water to the pan.
When the polenta is ready, serve immediately, topping each serving with a good amount of the kale and mushroom mixture, a few more crumbles of goat cheese, and a sprinkling of sunflower seeds, if desired.
This creamy dreamy polenta is best eaten as soon as it’s cooked, but if you have leftovers — don’t fear! I had great success reheating mine the next day in the microwave, but make sure you stir in a splash or two of milk beforehand to keep things creamy. I’ve heard tell that pan-frying polenta once it’s cooled is also a delicious way to enjoy it. And if you’re looking to add a bit more protein to your meal, I highly recommend topping the whole shebang with a soft-boiled egg. (I would have taken a picture of that for you, but the whole bowl disappeared before I had the chance.) Buon appetito!