Eric Akis: Rustic Italian pleasures with mushrooms, polenta and goat cheese

Eric Akis

If you love mushrooms, you’ll be happy about today’s column. That’s because I have cooked up four types and let them star in an Italian-style entrée.

They include three fresh varieties: oyster, brown and shiitake mushrooms.

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The cap of the mild-tasting, soft-brown-to-grey oyster mushroom has an oyster-like shape, hence its name. It has a lovely, velvety texture when cooked and it does a nice job of absorbing the rich tastes of other ingredients it’s prepared with.

Brown, also called cremini, mushrooms look similar to white button mushrooms, but have dark brown caps, a deeper, earthy flavour and a denser texture.

Tan to dark brown in colour, shiitake mushrooms also have a dense texture and a meaty flavour, with hints of wood and smoke.

The other fungi I used was sliced, dried porcini mushrooms. They are sold in small bags and, as with the other mushrooms I’ve noted, are sold at many supermarkets, usually in the produce department.

Because they are dried, they need to be soaked and reconstituted in water before cooking. They are wonderfully aromatic and also have a deep, meaty flavour that can add a bold hit of umami to a dish.

Today’s recipe, which serves two, is made by sautéing all four of these mushrooms in olive oil with shallots, garlic and rosemary. When tender, the mushrooms are then spooned over soft polenta, drizzled with a little more olive oil and balsamic crema, and then topped with some crumbled goat cheese and chopped parsley.

When ready, you have a rustic-looking meal with a range of meaty-tasting flavours, minus the meat.

Polenta with Mushrooms, Goat Cheese and Rosemary

This dish for two sees four types of tasty sautéed mushrooms set on soft polenta. If desired, you could serve it with foccacia bread and/or a simple green salad.

Preparation time: 45 minutes, plus soaking time

Cooking time: About 22 minutes

Makes: Two servings

For the mushrooms:

1 (14 gram/1/2 oz) pkg. dried porcini mushrooms (see Note 1)

2 Tbsp extra virgin olive oil

125 grams small to medium brown mushrooms, sliced

125 grams small to medium oyster mushrooms, tough lower stems trimmed off, caps and upper parts of the stem thickly sliced or left whole, if small

50 grams small to medium shiitake mushrooms, tough stems removed, caps halved

1 small to medium shallot, finely chopped

1 large garlic clove, minced

1 tsp chopped fresh rosemary

• salt and freshly ground black pepper, to taste

Place dried mushrooms in a small bowl and cover with one cup of warm water. Let mushrooms soak 90 minutes, until plumped up and reconstituted. Drain the mushrooms well, then dry on paper towel.

Place olive oil in a large skillet set over medium, medium-high heat. When oil is hot, add all the mushrooms, shallots, garlic and rosemary; season with salt and pepper.

Cook and stir mushrooms until tender and most of the moisture has been cooked out of them, about five minutes. Remove from the heat and set aside until needed below.

For the polenta and to serve:

2 1/2 cups water

1/2 tsp salt

1/2 cup medium-grind cornmeal (see Note 2)

2 tsp extra virgin olive oil, plus some for drizzling

1 to 2 tsp chopped fresh parsley

• balsamic crema, to taste (see Note 3)

50 grams soft goat cheese, crumbled (see Eric’s options)

Pour the water into a medium, heavy-bottomed pot and set over medium-high heat. Bring to a boil, add the salt, and then reduce heat to medium. While whisking steadily, slowly pour in the cornmeal.

Lower heat to medium-low and cook the cornmeal five minutes, whisking it frequently. Cook 10 minutes more, but now that it is starting to thicken, use a wooden spoon or heatproof spatula to stir it frequently.

When cooked a total of 15 minutes, the polenta should be thickened, but still fairly loose, and have no grittiness left in its texture. Stir in the 2 tsp olive oil, and then take it off the heat and cover. Let polenta sit two minutes.

Meanwhile, set mushrooms back on medium-to-medium-high heat and cook until hot again, about two minutes.

To serve, divide and mound some polenta on each of two dinner plates. Now divide and top the polenta with the mushrooms. Sprinkle mushrooms with parsley and drizzle with a little olive oil and balsamic crema. Top mushrooms on each plate with some crumbled goat cheese and serve.

Note 1: Dried porcini mushrooms are sold in small bags in the produce department of many supermarkets. If you can’t find them, use a similar-size bag of mixed dried mushrooms.

Note 2: I used Purity brand cornmeal for this recipe. It’s not marked medium grind, but it is.

Note 3: Balsamic crema is reduced balsamic vinegar found at specialty stores and in the deli or vinegar aisle of supermarkets.

Eric’s options: Instead of goat cheese, try another type, such as Gorgonzola cheese pulled into small nuggets. If you can’t have dairy, simple omit the goat cheese from this recipe. If, like me, you have rosemary growing in your garden, and it’s in bloom and has small purple flowers on it, you could use some of those flowers to garnish this dish, as I did in today’s photo.

Eric Akis is the author of eight cookbooks. His columns appear in the Life section Wednesday and Sunday.

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