Autumn’s Bounty: Thyme Polenta with Porcini

There are many reasons I love autumn.  Like I’ve mentioned here before, I also really love other seasons, but if I had to pick one, autumn is probably my favorite, with the slightly-cooling air, and leaves turning colors, and its abundance of fruit and wild mushrooms.

Last weekend's haul.  Of which I am inordinately proud.
Last weekend’s haul. Of which I am inordinately proud.

Mushrooms.  Oh, mushrooms, how I love them – and all the delicious things one can make with them.  And when I get my hands on the glory that is Boletus edulis, I turn to the Italian kitchen for inspiration, because they really, really know what to do with their porcini.

So, yesterday I went and picked mushrooms with a couple of friends, and we got either inordinately lucky, or my friends really know how to pick the forest patch, because we found them.  Porcini, the king of mushrooms according to many.  And what do the Italians have to say about it?  Well, mostly that it has an amazing flavor, so not to smother it with too much sauce, and to cook it gently and simply.  They also tell you never to wash the clean young ones, and only use a brush or a dry paper towel to wipe them, since according to most chefs who mention fresh porcini, washing them takes away the delicate flavor.

There is no way I could eat that mountain of mushrooms in a day, so the majority of it got chopped up and frozen for this winter’s soups and risottos and tarts (wild mushrooms freeze remarkably well, but you should definitely clean and chop them prior to freezing!), but I kept a few of the prettier mushrooms to use as soon as possible.  That would be today.  And what was one of the most attractive and lauded way to eat them according to the internet? (other than the famous risotto ai funghi porcini, which we are having later this week) – Porcini polenta.  Luxurious, mild and very very delicious.  Porcini have a very specific scent fresh or dry, and when fresh, a lovely sweet and aroma and delicate texture.  And they tend to generously impart that aroma to anything you cook them with, or put them in – or on, as with this polenta, which turns from a lovely comfort food to an Autumn-on-my-plate tasting experience.  And, as a bonus to all of that, it is incredibly, and I mean, really, silly-easy to make.  Not to mention the fact that it isn’t at all expensive – in fact, considering the mushrooms are free for a bit of effort, and polenta is very inexpensive (and it expands hugely when it’s cooked!), this recipe is really cheap.  Luxurious and thrifty food – the best of both worlds!

Polenta with Porcini and Thyme
Polenta with Porcini and Thyme

Now, I know, you probably heard that like risotto, polenta must be stirred the entire cooking time.  Unlike in the case of the risotto, where polenta is concerned, that idea is so much hot air.  Polenta is made best and easiest by mixing it with cold water in a 1:4 or 1:5 proportion in an ovenproof pot, adding a bit of salt, any dried herbs you want to use (in this case, about a teaspoon of dried thyme) and a small dab of butter, and sticking that pot into a 190C oven (no fan, top+bottom heat) for about 45 minutes, uncovered.  I use a large clay pot which I also make stews in for this, but without its lid.  Note:  when you mix the polenta and put it in the oven, it’ll look watery and separated, even if you use a whisk to mix it (I use one, but a spoon would probably do the job, too).  Ignore that separation, it’ll come together beautifully as it cooks.  After 45 minutes, take pot out of the oven, give it a stir, add a bit more butter and mix in a handful of grated cheese of your choice.  In our case it was a leftover chunk of gruyère.  At this point the polenta is essentially done, but you can cover it and let it sit in warm oven while you finish setting the table and making the porcini topping.

This method works well when making enough polenta for 4-5 or more servings.  Which means, I mix 3dl of coarse polenta meal with 12dl of cold water.  And then I have about twice the polenta I need – which is not a problem, but rather a great thing, for polenta is good the day you make it, and even better the next day.  Pile any polenta you don’t finish into a tupperware box, close that and stick it in the fridge.  The next day it will be entirely solid and can be cut up and fried or baked in golden, crispy-edged delicious slices.  Now, do you agree that it’s great to make twice the amount you need?  I see you do.  Back to the mushrooms!

Ingredients, not in that order.
Ingredients, not in that order.

What you need for the porcini topping is this:

  • 1 medium-large yellow or white onion, peeled, halved and sliced into thin half-moons
  • 1 solo head of garlic or 2-4 cloves of garlic, peeled and minced
  • Butter as needed to fry it all, and bacon grease (optional) or a drop of refined frying oil of your choice (to prevent butter from burning).
  • 2-4 large young porcini mushrooms, sliced thinly.  (What I don’t show here is that I also added a single white supermarket champignon to the mix after I took the photo because I wanted a bit more bulk to the mushroom saute.)
  • Salt, freshly ground black pepper and a bit more finely-grated cheese to finish.
Garlic and gruyere
Garlic and Gruyère

What you do:

  • Melt the butter in a large nonstick (or other if you are confident of your cast iron seasoning) pan on medium heat, with the bit of bacon grease or oil to prevent burning.
  • When butter is sizzling, put the sliced onions in, and add a pinch of salt to help them release their juices.  Saute on medium heat, stirring gently and occasionally, until the onions have colored to a beautiful deep gold, but not yet brown.
Golden Sauteed Onions
Golden Sauteed Onions
  • Push onions to the side and add all the sliced mushrooms.  Spread them over the pan surface and allow to release liquid and have it mostly evaporate without poking them too much.  Sprinkle the mushrooms with a tiny bit of salt.
  • When they begin to color, gently flip them over and continue to fry until they are tender and colored on all sides.
  • Once mushrooms are golden, make a small space on the side of the pan and add the minced garlic.  Fry for a few seconds only until it goes bright white and turns aromatic, then stir the garlic into the mushroom and onion mix.
  • Ladle polenta into bowls, and top with the mushroom mixture.  Serve immediately, before you are stampeded by a hungry mob.
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3 thoughts on “Autumn’s Bounty: Thyme Polenta with Porcini

    1. Dried porcini are wonderful, too! What I’d do is buy some regular white or chestnut mushrooms to provide the bulk of the topping, and rehydrate the porcini in some boiling water, then chop the rehydrated porcini finely and use them in the topping to flavor it all. You can also use the rehydrating liquid (it turns into a broth) as part of the polenta water if you rehydrate them an hour or two in advance, I bet that’d be lovely!

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