It’s been raining all week in San Diego, and so I’ve been craving hot dishes, and particularly grains, for every meal. I have had cooked oats for breakfast, barley for lunch, and polenta for dinner. Unlike oats, which are homey and regular to me, polenta seems to sophisticated. And before you start putting on disapproving facial expressions and doing slow, dismayed head shakes – I know that cooked cornmeal is other people’s oats: normal and comforting. But, to me, polenta is exotic and cool, not to mention an excellent accompaniment for lots of other foods.
So last weekend, I had already decided that I was going to have a sophisticated polenta dinner. I just hadn’t decided what to serve with it. And even the most sophisticated of foods struggles to pull off dinner all by themselves.
I wanted to make something simple. I thought of complementing star of dinner with the smokey flavors of bacon, but then I couldn’t decide how to work in vegetables and still keep it simple. Then I wanted to use mushrooms, but this would mean not getting the smoke that I had envisioned with the bacon. As I was going back and forth, it occurred to me that I could just smoke the mushrooms and solve all my problems. Since it had been a long time since our smoke gun had appeared from the depths of the cabinets, I seized the opportunity to let it out.
So. Polenta with smoked mushrooms, and then let’s add a cheese broth, why not, because broth is almost as sophisticated as polenta, so they can keep each other in check.
Step one was to smoke the mushrooms. I just put them in a bowl, covered it with clingfilm, and let the smoke gun loose.
Then I let the bowl sit undisturbed with the smoke inside for some 20 minutes, and then the mushrooms were smoked. Next I cooked them in a pan with butter and thyme.
While the mushrooms were smoking, I made a cheese broth. This is a less pretentious version of parmesan broth, made with less expensive cheese bits. I’ll write down the details of the cheese broth another today. For now, suffice it to say that I make my cheese broth by simmering rinds of different hard cheeses in water until they have given up enough flavor that I can call the water broth.
Finally, I made the polenta. I made it with water instead of milk, but then I added a bit of mozzarella to get it creamy and rich. Then: serve polenta on the bottom, mushrooms on top, surround it all with cheese broth, finish with a drizzle of olive oil and a nip of salt. And serve on gorgeous hemstitch table runner received as a birthday gift.